Cease & Desist, Copyright Stephen Hurley 2015, all rights reserved.
I’m Cease de Menich. It’s OK if you don’t know me—but you will. That’s what my agent keeps telling me to tell people, and judging from the throng of mostly stage-moms waiting beneath a marquee that reads “Good Morning, New York City,” maybe he’s right. I’m the actress who plays Jeanne d’Arc (please don’t call her Joan; that was never her name) the virgin, the warrior, the Catholic saint in a reality show that’s going to be a blockbuster. I’m supposed to say that, too. But don’t worry, I’m not over-the-top full of myself the way the others in the final three are.
I’m not beautiful, for starters. I’ve got a big nose—a French nose, as my Aunt Nana insists—but if it weren’t for my wide-set eyes it would be a real honker. I want to have it fixed but my Nana won’t let me. She says it gives me character. But the real reason is that we haven’t got the money, so that’s another thing you don’t have to worry about. I’m not rich, not like the girls from the Upper East Side who sat beside me at Juilliard. What I am is tough and smart, and I have something all the unrich, unbeautiful girls have: I have absolutely nothing to lose.
I look out the window of the car as I take off the last of my body armor; at the faded crepe in a liquor store window—the long shadows lumbering over subway grates on Broadway—and back to the faces of the wannabes waiting in the cold. All those wet noses and eager looks—all those eager fingers I hope will soon be pressing the letters of my name into their home screens. It’s only been four months since I was standing outside in the cold—an unknown, a wannabe, just licking my lips hoping to sink my teeth into a plum role.
For all you people who’ve been watching me on the WebTV trailers, I know what you’re thinking—that I just got lucky. I don’t deserve to be here. And you know what? I think that, too. (Is there an unrich, unbeautiful, sixteen-year-old girl anywhere who wouldn’t think that?) But fame never landed on my doorstep like a perfectly wrapped gift. I’ve paid my dues in ways you’ll never know… and for those of you who’ve been watching the installments the producers have been showing on WebTV every night—and are wondering just what this show is, I can offer you an explanation in a few simple steps.
First. This isn’t just a reality show; in other words, this isn’t just a show about a bunch of girls and boys who fall in love or beat each other to death—it’s a drama. I’m an actress playing an historic character who lived almost six hundred years ago. Try to think of my character, Jeanne d’Arc, as a real-life superhero, because she was. The three finalists who must compete for the boys are Jeanne d’Arc, Catherine the Great, and Susan B. Anthony. The boys do not play historic characters—they’re just hunks who flex their pecs and preen a lot. You probably know by now, that the conflicts we face are pretty modern—as in, things that girls and boys must face every day at home and school.
Second. The plotlines of each episode are closely guarded secrets. Dialogue is released the night before we shoot, and I’m given only my lines and a brief outline of the action. There were rumors in the beginning that actors would bribe the writers to get their lines early or to find out what was being written about the other characters. I don’t doubt it.
Third. Francis MacDonald, the director, is crazy—hopefully crazy the way that Hollywood geniuses are—an auteur, I try to convince Nana, but she keeps insisting he’s an imbecile.
I comb my fingers through my hair and need another minute before I get out of the car. I’m tired. Before arriving here I was locked in a straw-filled cage for three hours, and now I’d rather be back home in Tudor City with my Nana having my brownies and milk because even a martyr about to be burned at the stake deserves her brownies and milk. I open the window.
“We’ve been waiting all morning,” a girl in the crowd says.
I offer up a wholesome smile.
“Sorry. I was tied up.” And I was. Tied to a stake, in fact, just after the interrogators in Rheims, France (actually it was the Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens) grilled me, Jeanne d’Arc, about the voices I heard from angels and why I chose to wear men’s clothing.
A woman tugs the arm of her girl, maybe eight, with a crooked smile, braces, and black-rimmed glasses with unfashionably large frames. “She’d make a great angel, don’t ja think?”
I know why they’ve come. All those eager faces. All those Louis Vuitton dreams. They want to know how I made it. What it feels like, rising so quickly at such a tender age. What the ingredients are in the potion that raised me up over all the others.
The it-ness of fame.
Be careful what you wish for, is what I should tell them, tell all of you. Fame tastes like a kiss from a stranger—a really hot guy who’s got a dark side you’d better see before it’s too late. Fame will make you do the most horrible things to the people you love. It feels like a bolt of grief in my chest, a lock I’ve felt since the first day I arrived on the set.
But of course I won’t be saying any of that to Manny, the host of Good Morning, New York City. I’m going to tell him how incredibly lucky I am to be chosen as one of the final three girls, how blessed I am to have been cast by Francis MacDonald, the famous director—and that, with the help of all of you, I will take the podium. (OK, I know that sounds pretty stupid…a little too adoring, but I still can’t believe that some of you actually write me emails and tell me how good I am. Thank you.) I take a deep breath and look up to a woman dressed in a purple jacket at the top of the steps beneath the marquee.
“Go, Miss de Menich,” Yousef, my driver, tells me. “Go now and break some legs.”
“It’s break a leg, Yousef. And it means good luck.”
“Yes,” he stammers. “I keep the heat on for your Nana.”
And so I get out, doing my best to hide the fear, and let this honker cut through the sea of wannabes like a cool fin. On the top of the stairs, Joanie gives me a protective hug. Joanie’s my publicist, which means she wears brocade a lot. She also protects me like my body armor.
“Manny’s gonna ask you about your past,” she murmurs. “So remember, you’re just a humble survivor of the Glass family.”
I take the plastic bottle of water she hands me and make my way onto the stage where Manny greets me. He’s a small man with an impish grin who nods and tells me he’s been watching the trailers and I’ve really got what it takes to go the distance. I give him a humble nod and look out at the girls filing in from the cold.A man behind one of the cameras begins the countdown, and the cameras close in like advancing insects.
“Welcome to Good Morning, New York City. Our first guest should come as no surprise to many of you. Cease de Menich. The rising star who just two years ago got her big break a few blocks from here off-Broadway as a mesmerizing Juliet in the Barry Mendes production of Romeo and Juliet. From that she played the lead vampire…”
He’s reading the prompter, working his way down my short biography. I flex my feet and try to shake the bolt of grief. I silently recite my mantra. This is for the boy who taught me how to play a vampire better than any other girl in New York or Hollywood. It’s not a prayer, because I think God’s a fucking bastard, so I guess that’s another thing you don’t have to worry about. I’m not going to preach to you, and you don’t have to take me seriously when I tell the wannabes how blessed I feel at being chosen by God. What I really mean by God is just Francis MacDonald. Famous Francis, the director.
Manny is finishing up. “Cease is just sixteen years old, the youngest actress ever to be cast as Joan of Arc…”
“We hardly know anything about you, Cease. You trained at Juilliard.” I catch his measuring gaze, as if I’m some porcelain vase he’s holding up to the light searching for a crack—but I stare him down, give him my tight-lipped smile, my Mona Lisa lip-curl until he blinks and I know I’ve won. But then Manny looks serious and says, “Your mother was killed in a car crash in Santa Monica. That must have been hard on you.”
I take a deep breath as the crowd oohs.
“Yes,” I say, chiming in with my well-rehearsed biography. “I was a child model who’d gotten a commercial and we were all headed to the set when there was a terrible accident.” I smile confidently, but Manny swerves again.
“Cease. Do you believe in God? You’re playing a young woman who is quite devout…”
Damn. “Of course. My first memory was my mother standing over me with a cross…”
“Was she blessing you or trying to exorcise demons?”
“No. That came later, when I starred in Vampire Grrl.” More laughter. “My parents were Catholic, and my mother taught me a lot about faith.”
“From Juliet to Vampire Grrl. What a stretch. How did you get into those roles?”
You see, I’m right. Everyone wants the secret to that potion called fame. I clear my throat, give Manny a humble nod.
“These characters are a lot more similar than you might think,” I say. “Juliet is forbidden to love a boy from another family in the same way vampires are forbidden to love humans.”
“How did you get a name like Cease?”
“My real name is Cecile, but I wanted something that would stop the casting directors in their tracks.” A gray-bearded man in the back of the studio is making notes. He looks so familiar. I glance over to Manny and feel a bead of sweat forming on my upper lip. “I think I’m lucky. After all, I could’ve changed my name to Liev Schreiber. Can you imagine hearing casting directors say Liev, Liev when you come for an audition?”
Manny grins for the camera. “It sounds like this spitfire’s really got it. What do you think, ladies and gentlemen?”
I feel relief when the applause sign lights up because it always feels like a summer shower. Joanie’s giving me her thumbs-up from the wings. I sit back and flex my calves. Yes. This is what the wannabes want to hear—what it felt like to be chosen, to get the call—that sudden rush of tears and who you had to thank. (But I know from all those emails that some of you know the score…some of you know what you really have to pay to make it into the finals. You need to hear about the smell of that fat casting director on the couch and all the invisible hands that feed on youth; because fame’s never free.)
“Tell us about Saint Joan. You’re playing her like quite a tomboy.” I catch his wry smile and think Manny knows my secret. I feel the bolt of grief tighten.
Attack. Don’t let him see me sweat.
“Tomboy? That’s putting it mildly.” I brace my shoulders. “I got this part by refusing to become some wilting fleur-de-lis.” And that’s the truth. All the rich girls showed up with their rosaries. They wept contritely and emoted while I crouched restive in the wings with my crossbow.
I raise my right fist. “When I shall have done for which I am sent by God, I will put on women’s clothing.” I glare back at Manny. “That’s Jeanne’s actual response to the clergy when she was put on trial almost six hundred years ago. I read it in the transcripts that have been preserved by the Institute de Politiques in Paris. It was fascinating to read her own words, to study the testimony of an illiterate girl who had never been trained to handle a horse but is suddenly commanding an entire army and standing up to the church.”
I flex my feet and feel the tension in my voice fall away. “Yes, you’re absolutely right, Manny. I knew if I were really going to play this girl I would have to put on some pants and kick some boy butt.”
I can hear the applause rise and think I’ve got Manny when he looks out to the crowd and says, “Well. That may well be, Miss de Menich. But I think the other two finalists are just as prepared. Catherine the Great and Susan B. Anthony have both made it into the next round, and we’ll just have to wait and see what an assortment of hunky boys you have to choose from.”
I feel a twitch in my thigh as the lights fade and Manny tells the audience about the clip from the show, how famous Francis wasn’t content with a Jeanne d’Arc who lived and died in a medieval world. Jeanne was a real-life superhero from the past who would alight upon the battlefields in search of that young man she could marry to create a family that would assure lasting world peace.
This isn’t history; it’s Hollywood. Please don’t forget that.
I hear the gasps and ah-has from the crowd as the thatched huts of a pious French village dissolve into a modern wasteland, a burnt-out metropolis, and the crossbows morph into howitzers. Through the darkness, one of the wannabes proclaims in a loud stage whisper, “Is that really her? She looks so…”
Much like a boy. And not just any boy. The beautiful boy who molded me like clay and breathed the fire of life into me. The beautiful boy I destroyed.
I feel another bead of sweat on my upper lip as the lights come up. Manny makes a big O with his mouth and applauds in slow claps. I search the stage-moms and their sheep for a sympathetic face. Manny studies my cheekbones, freckled and luminescent, as I search for the exit sign, weigh my options…my Nana waiting for me outside. A quick ride back to Tudor City. Her warm hugs. We’ll have milk and brownies. She’ll talk about blood being thicker than water. We’ll run lines for my big scene tomorrow.
And if I don’t nail it, it’ll be my last scene…
“You look like a young Hepburn,” Manny says. My rib cage tightens. I suck it in.
“Did she play Jeanne?”
“No. You might be thinking of Ingrid Bergman. But, I must say after your performance today, Cease de Menich, you’ll give them all a run for the money.” And just when I think he’s let me off the hook, he holds up his hand and says, “Miss de Menich, there’s just one more question I have to ask you.” Manny leans forward, waits for all the wannabes and their mothers to lean in too.
“Would you kill to be the last girl standing?”
I try to stare him down, but can’t. I close my eyes, see the wounded boy’s face.
“C’mon, Manny, no director would ever allow a bunch of teenagers to actually hurt each other.”
You wanna bet?
Manny smiles. The APPLAUSE sign flashes; people in the crowd are getting to their feet. He kneels histrionically as I lower an imaginary sword upon his shoulders. I sign an autograph for a stage-mom and rush to the car, but the backseat is empty.
Where’s my Nana? I know she doesn’t like famous Francis who often alights from his trailer with crumbs in his beard and speaks to her in broken French. But why hasn’t she called? Maybe she’s fallen. We’re new in the building and hardly anyone knows her. I call her number as Yousef makes the turn down Broadway, but the line goes dead after a single ring. I look back to the studio and think I should’ve warned the wannabes about fame, that it’s stronger than any drug and always leaves you wanting more…
“You beat up more boys tomorrow?” Yousef’s gold tooth flashes in the rearview mirror as I try to shake off the performance energy and all those hungry faces.
“No. Tomorrow I kiss a boy. We make out.” I make this up, but I really want it to be true. I don’t know how I’m going to be the last girl standing, but I’m sick of fighting. I’ve been punching my way across battlefields for the last four months. I think it’s time to fall in love.
We’re stuck behind a bus.
“Even better,” he says. “God is good.”
God? I bite my lip. Too bad Mister Ineffable isn’t here so I can spit in his face. Nana’s fine, I try to reassure myself. Maybe she’s waiting for the messenger to bring tomorrow’s scene. Nana’s probably looking at it right now—slowly turning pages with that cautious, stoic mask she wore after I survived the first few rounds; a look that told me she was so proud but scared that I was getting in over my head, that I didn’t really understand my character. And then she’ll nod in that stoic way of a Christian martyr, a nod that reminds me we’re a noble, theatrical family with a tattered pedigree—a rusted coat of arms locked away in a crypt—and like all martyrs we’ve got a cross to bear.
My Nana thinks I was born to play Jeanne d’Arc, that we have the same chemistry—or, what she calls je ne sais quoi. Call it whatever you want—chemistry, charisma—my Nana says I’ve got it, and she doesn’t just dish out compliments; she’s a pretty strict stage-mom. I don’t feel it, maybe it isn’t something you can feel, but if there’s one thing I probably should’ve told the wannabes back in Manny’s studio it’s that having it, inheriting it, owning it, isn’t enough. You need someone you love and trust to help you nurture it.
Call that the first rule of chemistry.
A police line has been erected on Broadway at 43rd. We’re stuck in traffic. I tell Yousef to pull over. I can probably get home faster on foot.
“Please stay, Miss de Menich. You’re safe in the…”
I get out of the car and dash down 43rd Street. Storm clouds gather over the East River and the midwinter light pours down the crossstreets so evenly it feels as if I’m back on a movie set; by the time I reach Park Avenue I’m freezing in just a T-shirt. My sweater’s back in the car. I turn back and look for Yousef through the rush-hour traffic, the sea of people making their way home—but he’s gone. I pass diplomatic missions, a playground filled with girls in uniforms making their way to a bus. Grown-ups in shabby dress, chanting and carrying placards scribbled with words, pass me.
I’m standing on the corner of 43rd and First Avenue, waiting for the light to change. I’m thinking about how I’ve got to nail my speech tomorrow. The sun’s reflection on the United Nations building is slowly turning it into a giant silver monolith—a stone-slab holding secrets from another age. I used to study it as I walked home, after surviving the first rounds. Back then, I secretly hoped the clouds would part and Jeanne d’Arc would descend from the heavens, take me under her wing, and tell me the reason I’d been chosen over all the others—tell me that I hadn’t just gotten lucky, that I’m meant to be here. But I don’t believe in that crap anymore. I may not be rich or beautiful, but I know a great speech when I see one and I know how to deliver it; Catherine the Great may be a timeless beauty, Susan B. Anthony may have a body that makes the boys drool, but if I get a great speech tomorrow I’m gonna make you cry—or laugh, or swoon, or whatever it takes for you to choose me.
I’m not being conceited. Wanna know the secret to nailing a great speech? It’s simple—don’t trust words. I’ve been trained not to trust words, to memorize great speeches as if they were shopping lists, careful not to invest the meaning most people invest in them. When a great speech works, you can feel the words fall away. Time stops. You feel as if you’re frozen in some great mystery that has a texture, a shape, a color, and a promise that comes when you let go of everything you thought words were supposed to mean. Of course, you can never really stop time, but with the right speech, you can push it back long enough, so that the loose change in pockets, the whispers in the darkness (beyond the footlights) all pause—then you know all those people who’ve come to get away from real life, are finally right there with you, falling in love all over again.
Love—jeez, there’s a word you should be careful of. I know what real love feels like; trust me, I learned the hard way and all I can tell you is most people have it all wrong. Love isn’t the dewy crush cultivated by girls. And it’s not the artistic mix of sex and violence Francis envisions, either. Want to know what real love is? Real love’s a bucket filled with holes and the only thing those holes drip are tears—just ask yours truly or any of the brokenhearted.
I study the storm clouds forming over the East River. I need to get home to my Nana.
“Are you nuts?” a driver shouts. A horn blares. The light’s changed and I’m about to be hit by a bus. I jump back up on the curb.
“No. I’m a saint, you piece of crap.”
Well, a saint-in-training, maybe. OK, right now—I wish I were a superhero instead of an historic figure. I wish I had a superpower. Jeanne d’Arc never spun a web to catch an archvillain or knocked out an enemy stronghold with her laser vision, but she had a power none of the superheroes could touch: She was a strong girl who knew how to stand up for what she believed in.
A man with a grizzled beard passes. Wasn’t he the one standing in the back of the studio? I hug my chest against the cold.
“Seize?” A gruff and familiar voice.
“It’s Cease.” But when I turn he’s gone.
I push my way through a huddle of protestors headed to the monolith and cross the street to the rear of our building. The doorman gives me a big hello. Inside the apartment, a script sits on the coffee table. Nana kneels on the prie-dieu that sits beside her roll-top desk in the corner of the living room. I rush over and pick up the script.
She grunts and says, “Go see for yourself,” in a way I can’t read.
I sit down and grab a brownie off the plate, stare down at the revisions, as if they’re an oracle, and wait for her reaction.
“Where were you, Nana? I was worried.”
“I thought you needed your space,” Nana says with a shrug that’s Nana-speak for something’s wrong. Provincial furniture from Pierre Deux chokes our cramped living room like the memory of dead relatives. Nana got it for the apartment she used to have on the Upper East Side. The place she took me after the car crash that killed my mother and nearly killed me in California. We came down here to start over. Pierre Deux on Madison Avenue went out of business, but certainly not because of my Nana. A tall armoire with Chippendale wings stands between windows overlooking 43rd street, beside a Roman chaise with azure upholstery (where I’d like Nana to take a seat and tell me what’s wrong). It all looks a little stagy, but authentic—like Nana and I from the outside. But that rickety pew she’s kneeling on now has provenance. It comes from an ancient chapel that once held the de Menich coat of arms. A bishop gave it to her.
There’s a Louis XIV bookcase with a gold mesh screen that holds a handful of journals Nana’s careful to keep protected. She shifts her swollen knees with a long sigh. The ancient wood creaks. We’re not fighting, but I don’t dare go over there. It’s her space; the corner overlooking the cloisters. No matter how much I love my Nana there’s a line between us—because when someone you love more than anyone else in the world dies, a line gets drawn between you and all the other people you try to love just as much, but can’t.
I pick up the script.
Scene IV. Only a virgin can teach the boys how to make love. Jeanne shares a secret with Rex and only one of them progresses to the next round.
My calves tighten. Well—a love scene with Rex, the Aussie hunk. I guess I get to fall in love after all, but it looks short-lived.
And then I see the line below. Nana has circled it.
Jeanne: You can’t find God with a map.
That line looks awfully familiar. Yes. It looks familiar because it is familiar. The line points at me like an accusing finger.
She says nothing, which gives me time to take a breath and think of all the places this line could’ve come from, all the writers throughout the ages who could’ve written it. I drill down into the action. Break it down to the beats—let my training take over. I’m comparing notes on what love feels like with the Aussie hunk. The blocking notes are familiar.
It’s just coincidence, Cease. No it isn’t. How can it be?
Hundreds of plots throughout the ages sound like this one. Girl is contacted by a supernatural power and informed she must become tough as a boy to save the world. Girl meets real boy and falls in love. Girl must give up her inner boy to make room for the real boy in her life. Why?
“Nana? What’s wrong? Why did you circle…?”
And now she does turn and gives me a really hurtful look, a look I’ve never seen before.
“Nana. That line…it came from…my Romeo.” I bow my head. Nana gives me that measuring gaze—a look that only an adult can give to a little girl, a little girl crying over a disaster she should’ve seen coming. And then I’m crying—low, angry sobs that tell her she’s done something beyond the pale.
“My sweet Jeanne. My humble maid.” She’s rising now, slowly. I hear only the creak of her knees against the wood. She’s shared our secret with the world. I steal a glance at rows of black journals behind the gold mesh of the bookcase, knowing what’s in there. The brownie I’ve just dropped looks like a turd on Nana’s beautiful oriental. Nana’s shaped like a refrigerator but has all the warmth and security of a down comforter; her big arms wrap around me.
“You’re freezing, child.”
“I needed to walk…Nana? I don’t understand. How could the writers have known that line?”
“It’s time we sit down,” Nana says. “It’s time we talk about your character.”
The reflection from the sun on U.N. building at this hour usually casts a palm-size disk across our living-room wall. I search for it on the yellow and gold, fleur-de-lis wallpaper.
“Neither of us told anyone,” Nana says. And then she lets out a sigh. “I think it’s time you accept that larger things are at work here.”
I scoff because whenever things get weird, Nana always turns to God. I’m pretty sick of seeing that solemn look that tells me there’s something obvious I’ve been missing. She looks out at the cloisters. A rope the window washers had left is rapping against our window.
A long beat. We in the House of de Menich are not good at talking about real feelings. That’s why we ran on stage in the first place. We’re not a normal family. If there really is a coat of arms with our name locked away in a family crypt, its motto would probably read: “We keep our darkest secrets hidden in plain sight, because the only place you’d ever believe them is in a darkened theater.”
One of us needs to change the subject, fast.
“All right—what are these portals?” Nana asks, finally. Whenever Nana can’t find a way to share the deep secrets of my character, she blames the script. She blames Hollywood.
“They’re places I go to move back and forth in time. It’s the same way saints travel through time,” I say. I look at my Nana’s old face, those bird-waddled lines around her eyes that flex when she’s trying to tell me something and the words just come up short.
“That’s not the way saints travel.” Nana wears her Catholic heritage like a birthright. “Saints don’t need—”
“Well, that’s the way Hollywood saints travel. Think of them as movie stars of another age—like Hepburn, your favorite.”
“The director’s an imbecile.” She scoffs. I look down at the brownie crumbs scattered on the oriental. Another ten-hour day and I don’t remember the last time I ate. Unless you could call those green concoctions the caterer made, eating. I clean up the mess and grab another. Even a martyr about to be burned at the stake needs her brownie.
“Whatever happened to good old-fashioned Bible stories?” Nana asks.
“Nobody believes them anymore.”
“Some of us do–”
“Yeah. Like your sister.” I can’t keep it in anymore. “That poor excuse for a mother who tried to kill me. Sure, she believed. She believed she was God—at least, she tried to play him and look what happened.”
Now we’re fighting. I don’t need this. That line between us has suddenly become a barbed-wire fence. There are lines that get drawn between people for the stupidest reasons. Another breath. I think about my options with Rex tomorrow. Do-or-die scenes with girls are pretty straightforward. You fight until one of you dies—with boys, it’s different. Sometimes you fight, but there is always a possibility of falling in love. Rex isn’t much of an actor, but all the girls have gone ga-ga over his body—tomorrow, he’ll probably be thinking more about Susan B’s stupendous breasts and Catherine’s porcelain skin than my lightning reflexes.
I reflexively tug the black cloth that hangs beneath my teal, silk shirt. It’s a scapular—a peace offering. We can’t afford another fight about the past. Across the coffee table, Nana sits on the other side of a great divide. Each night, after the revisions arrive, I read my lines and feel myself slowly crossing over, each word a steppingstone and my Nana on the other side. My rock. My safe harbor. I take a deep breath and begin my journey backward.
“Nana? My character…Jeanne.” I try to stay in character. “She would interpret the words ‘only a virgin can teach the boys how to make love’ as proof that her virginity was a source of her power and that making love meant the kind of pure love that her God believed could save the world. Right?”
I check to see if this is sinking in and pull the scapular all the way out of my shirt and hold it where she can see it. It has a history neither of us can deny. Before Francis chose me, I had to make love to a boy at one of the callbacks. The union required that Aunt Nana be present, and when she arrived we spoke in French. I explained that I wouldn’t really be making love with the boy, but there would be a lot of kissing, my breasts would be exposed, and he’d probably fondle them the way boys do.
Nana refused to consent. I was a child, her child now that her sister was dead, and she wouldn’t allow it. I said nothing. I gave her a look that said nothing this boy could do would ever hurt me as much as what James had already done. She consented with one condition—that I wear the scapular that had been handed down to Nana’s grandmother—an Alsatian, whose ancestors had once resided in Domremy, the birthplace of Jeanne d’Arc.
I kiss in a grown-up way. That’s what casting directors have told me. But the truth is I’m still a virgin. Unlike my character, I didn’t pledge my chastity to God or Jesus. I don’t think being a virgin is the secret to my strength or how I got chosen to become Jeanne. I just haven’t found the right boy. Everyone thinks that losing it is a sign of growing up, but no amount of growing would ever satisfy what I’d lost. Anyway, the boy groped clumsily for my breasts, but I guided one of his hands to the small of my back and the other to my shoulder. I found the light and pressed gently against his lips, careful not to let him move too fast.
Whether you’re Juliet or a vampire, it was the same dance… You must show the audience no matter how hard you press, how deeply you go, there’s a hole in your heart that will never be filled. That’s how the star-crossed make love.
Those were some of the moves my Romeo taught me. I sit up. “Whoever included this line might be trying to help me.” I don’t know why I think this, but it just feels as if someone is trying to give me a clue…I clasp my hands in my lap and check to see if Nana is with me. She nods.
“Maybe it’s a clue?—a clue on how to outsmart Rex,” I say. My eyes race down the script, trying to prove my intuition. “This scene is about lovemaking and how my virginity is the source of my great power, my physical strength.”
“It’s not about the lovemaking,” she warns. “It’s about what the lovemaking will do to you.” Nana doesn’t like the idea that her beloved virgin saint is being used as a sex object, and I can’t really blame her. But she also thinks I’m becoming too tough and punching out too many boys. Go figure. I tried to tell her making it as a young actress in this city is about the same as the real Jeanne trying to get the world to listen to her as a girl in 15th century France.
“Yes. I get that. And I think my virginity is definitely a source of my power, no matter where that source comes from. But how can I play that without coming off as being prude?”
Stay calm, Cease. It’s easy to see what Francis wants tomorrow. Rex is a great seducer. I’m a virgin. They want to see me crack. Francis wants to see me melt in that hunk’s arms and when I do I’ll be left in the dust like all his other conquests. He’ll make a pass. I’ll resist. This will be drama enough as he’s gonna be pretty hard to resist. If he tries anything I’ll show him a few moves he’ll never forget…
“My character would never allow herself to be taken in by just a handsome boy. Jeanne wants more than that. I need to show him that falling in love is easy. But the kind of love that will save the world goes a lot deeper.”
Nana scoffs. “This is Hollywood, not history, Cease. First they want you to act like a boy. Then they want to watch you grow a dick.”
I laugh at her rare irreverence. I hold up the scapular and then carefully place it back under my T-shirt. Nana’s my rock, but she’s not the safe harbor she once was. Over on her roll-top desk sit all those biographies of this strange character I still don’t really understand.
What will the lovemaking do to me? It’s not that I’m afraid of having sex. But how the hell am I going to convince a million girls—who probably have mothers a lot like my Nana—that a virgin saint can fall in love?
Nana looks across the scattered papers and says, “Your character isn’t a star-crossed lover and she’s not some little tart you just sink your teeth into.” She says it in a totally mean-spirited way that puts me on the defensive. I can feel the beat as if we’re back on stage. I can almost see the line reappear between us.
“Why don’t you just admit it, Nana? You always wanted a leading man. You wish I were dead and he was here.” I wish I hadn’t said this. It feels like no matter how hard I try to help us both heal, there will always be a part of me picking at the scab. My Nana has beautiful cheekbones that I tell people I inherited because I refuse to admit I inherited anything from my real mother, but as she presses her fist into one of those half-domes I know she’s trying to stifle tears. I can’t stand to see my Nana cry. I know how much my saying those words must hurt her, because she never got a chance to reflect on them. She was too busy taking care of me. I want to hug her now. I want to tell her how she saved my life and helped me survive the first rounds, but all I can think of is being the last girl standing. I know that sounds selfish. Fame feels like a gorgeously wrapped present that I still hope holds all the love I can’t show in real life. I follow her gaze to the strange genealogies my Romeo collected, locked up in the armoire. I raise my hand to my mouth as if I could put the words back in because she gave me such a look of hurt…I rise and run down the shotgun hall to the bathroom and sit on the toilet and press my thumbs gently into my eyelids. I count back from ten, slowly, and curse that stupid prayer that’s been running in my head.
“Cease, my little gem. I’m sorry. Open the door. We can have brownies then run your lines.”
“I just need to rest my head.”
“It’s been twenty minutes.”
I gasp. I must’ve fallen asleep. I go back down the hall and she makes a place for me on the couch. I run to the kitchen for a sponge and wipe the brown turd I made in her beautiful rug. She takes it from my hand and puts it on the coffee table. She again makes room for me on the couch. Nana pulls the afghan over my legs and takes off my Uggs. I feel her arms around me, those spongy breasts; the worn laugh-lines of that stately face press against my cheek. She puts my head in her lap and I listen to her talk in soothing tones about my character. I can see the girl my Nana still wants me to become.
“Before she became a saint she’d been a girl, and that’s the part of her life I want you to see as your own.”
I look up to her proud jaw as she speaks, and I close my eyes and see a girl on the banks of Domremy, a hamlet in the Loire Valley, picking flowers with her friends. Her father teaches her how to tend the sheep, her mother teachers her how to sew. France has been torn apart by war for almost a hundred years. The English occupy towns and swear their allegiance to another crown while the deposed king of France is rumored to be a bastard. This crazy, little girl is never taught to read, ride a horse, wield a sword, yet one morning in her twelfth year the archangel Michael appears to her as she tends her father’s flock and tells her she’s been chosen to restore Dauphin Charles VII to the throne. She patiently informs her parents that she’d been chosen by God to save France. Her father thinks she’s crazy and calls the town priest. She’s captured in battle, tortured, maybe even raped by her captors. Then she’s put on trial for being a witch. She became tough as a boy to survive. Hell, tough as most of the men she fought beside, but she never lost her sense of love.
I look up to those beautiful cheekbones as Nana goes on about my character. I can see the face of that girl on the banks of a river. But there’s another face I see. A face I dread…
“Your Romeo loved you with all his heart. He did everything he could to help you see…to help you get this part…” Nana’s voice trails off here, as it usually does, and I’m forced to fill in the blanks. I look at the scattered pages on the coffee table. What used to be an oracle now looks like some wild animal that has invaded our home. Then I picture the scene with Rex tomorrow as I remember the line—only one of them progresses to the next round. We both turn to each other. Nana has a knack for reading my mind.
“Your mother loved you,” Nana says as she studies the confusing shadows that make their way up the living room wall. In the silence we both know better than to inquire further. The magical chemistry I possess, the charisma that can’t be taught, runs in my family. My mother had the gift, too. But like a lot of people who have it soon learn, it is mercurial and, like some chemicals, unstable…
If I told you the “car accident” in Santa Monica that killed my mother and nearly me had been no accident, would you believe me? Of course not. You’d say I was just some desperate loser who wants you to vote for me, so I could be the last girl standing. And if I told you what she said before she turned the wheel…that it came right out of one of those Greek tragedies you were supposed to read in high school…you’d think I was a crazy, desperate loser…so why go there.
The truth is a lot stranger than fiction in the House of de Menich.
I close my eyes and try to see my mother’s face the way Nana wants me to see it; those angelic eyes—that beautiful hair and heart-shaped face. But the only face I see is the one I always see—the face of the beautiful boy she destroyed. And then, as if she really is inside my head, Nana says, “There’s no such thing as ancient bloodlines protected by God. The only curse in our family was mental illness.”
Nana walks me down the hall and tucks me in. After I take off my pants I do a total face-plant on the pillow. I can feel sleep hit me like a blow from behind.
“Nana? Can saints really talk to people?”
“Of course. We rely on their intercession.” Her strong hands massage my shoulders. “Do you think Jeanne’s trying to talk to you?”
“No.” My muscles put up their last bit of feeble resistance. “I’m not the kind of actress who gets voices in her head. But, as I was walking home, I had a moment looking up at the light when I felt I could see the whole city in her eyes.”
“Well, there you go. Goodnight, my princess. Goodnight, my humble maid.”
I stifle a yawn and gaze over the brownstone steps of Murray Hill bathed in a pink dawn light as we speed uptown. Yousef pulls in beside the trailers—double-parking on Park Avenue. Dreams come true. I’m actually holding up traffic on one of the most glamorous streets in the world, and no one is shouting or threatening to give me a ticket.
Rex, the Aussie hunk, stands beside his trailer, his tree-trunk legs athwart a sea of cables, his big head hung down as if he were some action hero whose battery had died. I study the grips as they lug a monitor and video screen. The assistant director stands with Connie, the continuity lady, as they chalk up the sidewalk.
“My fair maiden,” he says.
“Jeanne’s not a maiden.” I shrug. “The maid—she was called the maid.”
The humble maid from Orleans. Not the maiden, you imbecile.
I nod and hug him. As he lifts me off my feet, I feel I can trust him. The love-sick girls have spread rumors about him online. They’ve fallen in love with his body, his accent, the way he runs his fingers through his long, blond hair whenever he rises from another bloody victory.
“Looks like I’m the chosen one,” he says with that weird lilt he uses whenever we leap into the past. It reminds me of all those bad Shakespeare actors who think you could only play the Bard with an affected voice. Luckily, today we’re leaping into the near future—a modern city, writhing with henchmen and spies that seem to thrive on youth in the movies. I give Rex a tight-lipped smile. He’s rugged. He’s handsome. I could fall in love with him. But it wasn’t the kind of love my character had lived.
“Jeanne,” Francis calls from the steps of his trailer, without even looking up from his clipboard. Francis has a knack for making actors feel like pieces of meat; like I’m a nice cut of prime rib he discovered, marked down. Don’t take it personally, my agent warned. Francis doesn’t think his actors are really cattle. He just treats them like cattle.
Francis studies Rex as he walks toward us. The hunk walks like there’s always a red carpet under his feet.
“Jeanne. It’s time you take off your gloves,” he says.
My gloves or my clothes?
“Yes. I feel this scene will take me to the next level,” I say, dutifully. Francis turns to me and winks.
A hopeful sign. Maybe he’s on my side. After all, the hunk may be beautiful but he has no stage experience. The only great review Rex ever got was from a critic who adored his chin.
The continuity lady approaches with her clipboard and gives me the final direction for the scene. I open the secret packet. And the winner is…
My heart trembles as I read.
I look over Rex’s broad shoulders to the sign in the window of a truffle shop still festooned with holiday decorations. I search the caravansary of trucks that snake alongside Park Avenue’s center divide. Francis’ strict orders bar writers from the set, but I search the men and women huddled together in the cold outside the caterer’s truck.
I see Francis talking to the sound man and wonder why he would stoop to this reality project after making a big, important film. I feel calm as I gently test each word, envisioning how Rex would probably react and how I’d counter to stay ahead of him.
“So? Are we gonna nail this, or what?” he says.
And then I look in Rex’s eyes and know exactly what I have to do to win. He places his hand on my shoulder and I can feel it; to him I’m not really a girl anymore, certainly not some ingénue like Juliet—but I’m not a woman, either. Just some undiscovered country he’ll be sticking his pole into like a brawny explorer. I could practically smell it on him—that killer instinct that makes some girls swoon. They call his name from wardrobe and he leaves.
“Jeanne d’Arc to makeup… Jeanne d’Arc to makeup…” blasts over the loudspeakers. It always cracks me up to hear it, as if one of the toughest girls in history needs makeup. Three lights above the trailers flicker from red to yellow, telling all the actors they have only five minutes to prepare and find their marks.
A good hard cry would help relieve the growing pressure in my chest, those icy fingers—that bolt of grief—but there isn’t time for that as the lights begin to flicker. I look out my trailer window and wince as a blast of light blinds me—an assistant is directing a huge mirror on top of the truck that holds the main camera.
I feel it again. The way I felt when I looked up to the U.N. building. I glance over to the stack of books and papers; all the research I’d done—the transcripts Nana had helped me collect; the biographies and anecdotes people I never met had sent—that reassured me after years of playing make-believe roles to escape my real life that I’d found someone—a strong girl with a big heart—who I could become.
Someone out there might be trying to help me…
I feel my chest grow warm, the way it felt when I got one of my brother’s hall-of-fame hugs—a gentle wave rolling out to my hands and feet and returning to my heart. For Rex to win he’ll need to seduce me, get my secret, then dump me.
Not gonna happen, Mister Stud.
I look out the window at two grips holding up a giant reflector as Rex raises his arms and does a victory dance.
I’ve got a few tricks of my own.
All the words about love Rex would probably gloss over as those perfect almond-shaped eyes bore down on me and those lips closed in.
It’s simple, really. Rex wants that secret passion we girls keep locked away, that secret we all want to lose some day with the right boy. Jeanne protected her virginity. It was the source of all her power.
The kind of love we’d lost the words for…I need to find the words before it slipped away. The kind of love that doesn’t run on pickup lines. The kind of love that doesn’t crave bigger breasts or a smaller nose…the kind of love that can be set in motion with a single kiss.
My jaw tightens. I close my eyes. I’m not the type of actress who gets voices in her head. But I could hear it.
Soft, not seductive—almost a whisper, as if the voice was too weak to speak louder.
I open the door of my trailer and call Rex in with a wink I know he’ll understand. “Rex, have you ever considered all the time we’ve been nursing each other’s wounds on the battlefield that someday we’d have to do more than stanch the bleeding and round second base. Falling in love with any girl is easy. Staying in love—now, that’s hard.”
“I should probably take a breath mint.” I glance over the layers of clothes on my cot, the mirror above my little desk that holds a picture of my Nana and my brother.
“Rex. All these battlefields that we must visit in the past and the future are just metaphors too, metaphors for our bodies and the horrible things we do to them in the name of love.”
I give an exasperated sigh and decide talking about metaphors is too much for Rex. But if I come off as a prude the scene would die. I’d be called boring or worse by the girls and boys at home. I remember Nana’s advice. It’s not about the lovemaking. It’s about what the lovemaking would do to me…I’ll have to give Rex what he wants. At least, up to a point. Up to that point where everyone could see we just weren’t right for each other.
“Rex, we need to practice.” I can tell by his lovesick nod that he’ll be playing the scene in that same brutish way he played most of the other girls in previous rounds.
I take him by the hand over to my cot.
“Take your sweater off.”
We kiss. Rex has the hardest abs I’ve ever felt in my life. I wonder what he imagines to endure all those crunches or squats or whatever the hell boys do to get this hard—D-cups probably, jiggling wildly—not the flimsy C’s I was pressing into him. I reach under his shirt with my thumb.
Just one of those cobblestones in the right place…
I feel myself falling back into the groans of pleasure and release, all the emotions I knew well from when I was told to sink my teeth into a boy’s neck. The love of conquest, of blood and bulging veins, the kind of love that turned boys like Rex into studs. But I need to see how he’s going to react when I begin to back off. His lips are soft, and pressing against his chest makes me feel as if I really could let go, but when I steal a glance I see the bravura that tells me he couldn’t care less about my secrets.
Rex is doing what all heartthrobs do. Smoldering. I wonder if maybe there’s a school for smoldering that Rex attended down under in Melbourne where the boys go to flex their pecs and preen.
He pops a breath mint and offers me one.
“It’s time to put on my armor,” he says. He gives me a mean smirk that says he won’t be taking no for an answer when it comes time for me to put out.
“I’m not going to let you conquer me like a peak,” I tell him. I can feel my feet flex as if they’re being drilled into the trailer floor. I can feel myself slipping into character, putting on my armor.
“I got it. Just be sure not to block me when Francis moves in for a close-up.”
He gropes my breasts and gives me a defiant look. I can feel the anger rise in my chest like a clenched fist.
You picked the wrong girl, mister stud.
A knock on the door. It’s Connie the continuity lady, with a watch and a pair of motorcycle boots I’d worn in the previous scene.
The yellow lights flicker on an electronic billboard that announces each scene—meaning all the actors are in place and the action is about to begin when Rex places his hands on my hips and gives me a bump with his crotch that forces me backward.
“Relax, honey. You’re about to lose it with a boy who really knows how to make a girl feel good.” That mean smirk, again; it gives me the creeps—but, also a weird déjà vu. (Nana, standing over me with the transcript from a witness who heard a man taunt the real Jeanne about her virginity. An hour later he’d fallen into the Viene River and drowned.) It feels as if the real Jeanne is standing next to me, warning me to be careful.
“I guess you really want to win,” I say thinly.
“Of course. Coming in second is like kissing your sister.”
Did he really just say that? I study his face for a clue that he’s in on some sick secret. But the hunk looks clueless. I look at the faces of the crew. Were they all in on some sick joke? I take a long, slow, deep breath just as the lights go green. Francis has his head buried behind the lens, but the assistant director is giving me a telling smirk. I feel my fists ball into furious knots. I wonder what they’ll say when I break the hunk’s nose.
I fall in line behind Rex as we move through a crowd of people, one of whom is a spy following us. We hit our marks in front of a truffle shop. After a slow glance in the window I turn and look up to Rex.
“I wish this war were over. I wish we could just walk off into the sunset.” He kisses me. It’s slow and then I feel the turn coming, that slow orbit that I make around him before I dip in for another kiss. His thumb gently caresses my breast, those expert fingers moving over me like the hands of a safecracker.
“Just one more world,” he says. “Then I’m taking you to Eden.”
“You can’t find God with a map,” I say.
I let it sink in. With Rex you can never tell if a big line is sinking in. But I gently press my hand against his mouth when he dips in for another kiss. I catch sight of a strange man as I turn away from Rex’s lips. A spy?
“Can you help me?” Rex’s eyes are pleading.
I take his hand in mine. “What if I told you everything we need to win the favor of the gods is right here, right now, so long as we use the right words?” He pushes me away. He lowers his hand to my belt buckle and after a playful tug, fixes his fingers over the belt loop and pulls me into him.
“Rex?” I trace my forefinger along his ribs, begin to strum. “You’ll never be able to stop time with just a kiss.” He follows my gaze, looks east toward the river. “Do you know where we’re really going?”
“After I get us into the portal, I’m taking you to Eden.”
“Eden doesn’t exist, Rex. Eden is just a place where the grown-ups will watch us make love with all the sick envy of spectators.” I can feel my legs resist the pressure of his body…I can feel the strength of these lines, the strength of my character. Rex isn’t too subtle—but if I can get him to step back and get what I’m trying to say, we just might have a scene here… I feel his hand on my blouse. I wrap my small fingers around his wrist.
“Imagine a place you’ve never been, a town, on the other side of the globe, but one that looks so strangely familiar you can’t put your finger on where you’ve seen it before. You walk down the main street. You see a girl. You know immediately that she is the one but as she begins to tell you of her family you sense a problem. Maybe you remember a warning from your father that someday you’d encounter a sworn enemy of his and that you must not fall in love with her under any circumstances. Or maybe you find that she’s fallen in love with you and that she has a terrible sickness—a hunger you can’t handle—but no matter what it is you can’t love this girl, at least not completely. She’s from another world. She belongs to another church. But what you feel is love and you know in your heart that’s the most important thing. So you go on loving her, and now you have to face the facts.”
I step back.
“That’s what it feels like to fall in love with a boy who can never love you back.”
We kiss. Rex lifts me up. It’s a nice kiss, I have to admit—a little wet with a hint of tongue. And then he pulls off my belt buckle and tears at my zipper. I don’t look at the camera. I have a feeling he’s just following instructions. I know the only thing Francis can probably see right now through that lens is Rex’s bulge and dollar signs as a huge audience back home is about to watch a sixteen-year-old ingénue be devoured by a hunk. I try to pull him out. I can feel those fingers clawing below my panty line and imagine a lost boy running through a burning forest. I don’t care what his instructions say; no one gropes Jeanne d’Arc without a fight.
“Let go, Rex. You’re not the one for me.”
“C’mon. You know you want it.” And then he presses his lips to my ear and whispers, “You’re not really a virgin. Everyone knows what you really are.”
I slam my boot heel down on the arch of his foot.
Thanks for remembering those motorcycle boots, Connie. I drive my elbow into his rib cage.
“I’m a saint and you’re just a dumb boy. You don’t conquer me like a peak.” I kick him in the back of a knee and his legs buckle. His eyes grope for the light, for the camera, hoping to hear the cut. I punch him in the nose. I hear the crunch. Real blood sprays and Rex goes down with a satisfying thud.
I step back. It feels as if no matter how many times Francis yells Cut, these scenes are going to play in my head until I stand up and face my past. I take a step toward Rex and point at his bloody nose.
“Rex, I think you should know this. You look just like the boy who broke my Romeo’s heart.”
Francis gives me a tight-lipped smile of satisfaction I’d have craved in the beginning, but I only nod on my way to my trailer. I’d broken Rex’s nose and he screams as the paramedics attend him, shouts that he’s going to sue.
I take a victory lap around the set and wind up at Bradley’s trailer door. Bradley Mann—leader of the resistance movement, and he looks pretty irresistible to me. He’s now the last boy standing, at least until Francis brings in the Latin star he’s supposed to be negotiating with. He must’ve just come from a run around Central Park because his navy blue sweatshirt’s covered in sweat. He’s taller than Rex, a much better actor, too.
“How’d it go with Rex?” He flashes that aw-shucks lopsided grin that had caught many of his opponents off guard. Brad knows how it went. I give him a hug. When I raise myself to give him a peck on the cheek, he turns and our lips meet. I feel a jolt travel from my thigh up to my heart.
“Rex needed a lesson in how to treat a girl,” I say.
Brad looks as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking. He gently touches a constellation of freckles on my neck and says, “Give me my Romeo and when he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”
It’s my favorite line, and after Bradley recites it I begin to cry; long, hard sobs with my head held down that tell him I’m not acting. He holds me.
“You really needed that.”
I’m sick of punching boys. I just want to fall in love.
And then he kisses me. For a moment I’m lost. We’re standing on the steps of his trailer in the morning light. I fight the urge to press my face into his wet sweatshirt. Are we rehearsing? I’d never felt a kiss so genuine.
I close my eyes…the memories of night, broken glass, and that look on my mother’s face as she turned the wheel.
I pull back.
“You kiss by the book,” I say. It’s another of my favorite lines. Is this what love feels like? I know at least I could trust Bradley. In our first scene he played a wounded boy in a future war I’d nursed back to health. He loved his mother who’d died of cancer, he confessed to me the day we met. There was something about that confession that troubled me but also assured me we’d be friends.
Can I trust him? There’s a rumor going round that I just have to ask him about. Deep breath.
“I guess our next scene together will be a do-or-die,” he says. I’m about to give him my cool may-the-odds-be-ever-in-your-favor line when I stop, because that cunning look in his eyes tells me he knows something. And then the words just fly right out of my mouth.
“I heard Eve offered you a hand job for some information about your character.”
He steps back and I can tell by the blush he’d almost been able to stifle that he’s still a virgin. And I know he can tell by the nanosecond I tripped over hand job that I’m a virgin; and together in that indescribable, magical pause that all actors try to create but rarely achieve, I feel we’re meant for each other.
When I get home Nana’s waiting for me on the couch with a Cheshire cat smile, her sagging cheeks flushed with motherly pride. I take the article that’s sitting atop the latest revisions. It’s a clipping my publicist, Joanie, must’ve forwarded. Nana carefully monitors all those websites I swore off when I got the part. I just don’t have time to find my character and read all the gossip on which girl looks the most promising and which matchups will make the cover of the trades. This is an article from RHI— Rumor Has It, a gossip column with all the authority of Variety.
Who’s Saint Francis Banking on in His Latest Blockbuster?
Looks like Francis MacDonald has discovered another unknown in his latest super-secret venture: a wild time-traveling reality show. Cease de Menich, a young Juilliard grad is on the rise after beating out some luminaries on the A-list who auditioned—including Selena, whose handlers downgraded her audition to a go-see and said she wasn’t interested in the project. And RHI has learned that a certain Latin heartthrob who needs a star-turn is currently in talks about slipping into the third and final spot of the last boys standing to mix things up a bit.
But does our little saint have the chops to go the distance with a real man? “She’s becoming unglued,” one of the actors who played a love scene with her told RHI. “She has a real problem with anger.”
I don’t have a problem with anger, Rex. I just didn’t like you.
I lift up the article and look over to Nana and smile. I know what she’s going to say. This is the long awaited scene that every hopeful dreams about, but that Nana and I never got to feel. She looks so proud, and I feel as if that bolt of grief that has gripped my chest since I got the call might just come loose with the right combination of words.
“He would’ve been so proud.”
“My Romeo,” I reply as if on cue. I try to take another breath but my ribs are slowly tightening…I look desperately at the line between us—the secret between us, crouched like a wild animal that’s gotten loose. I grope for the lines that will get it back into its cage.
Why not just say his name? The boy who taught me to nurture the secret I possess. The boy who molded me like clay, breathed the fire of life into me, and turned me from a stupid-looking wannabe no one wanted to look at into a girl no one could take their eyes off. My tutor. My bodyguard. My script reader. My best friend.
Say his name, Cease.
Another excruciating beat.
“Why couldn’t we have been a normal family? I mean, who the hell died and made us the Ovids of the East Side.”
“The Moscowitz family called,” Nana says. “They want to know if you can join them for a matinee of Death Be Not Proud.”
We both laugh, nervously, anxiously, desperately. It’s not great dialogue. It’s how we warm up for serious conversations in the House of de Menich. It’s the dialogue from our family tragicomedy. If I had to give our saga a title, I’d probably name it something Greek. Definitely pre-Christian, because it just doesn’t have the warm, fuzzy feel of a production that might be set in an old, rent-controlled apartment on East End and 89th Street, where Nana had lived until she moved down here to start over. Where I fought with my Romeo and then discovered his body hanging in the linen closet. Only he wasn’t some character I was rehearsing with. He was real and I loved him. And now he’s dead.
“James. My brother. He would have been so proud.”
Nana winces. I take a sharp breath. She’s never once said his name since we moved to Tudor City. James was the empty place mat I’d accidentally set at the table each night in the first weeks after the funeral; the character in the play everyone talks about who never appears. He was the door my Nana closed and tried to bolt after I got off the phone with my agent who told me I’d been chosen, the morning of my brother’s funeral, and Nana said, one door has closed and another has opened. We both turn and look to the door as if James still just might appear. And then I relax my shoulders and say something I should’ve said four months ago. “I couldn’t have made it this far without you, Nan.” But the strange stillness persists. We feel like two actors hopelessly caught on stage—waiting for a character we know is never going to appear. The grandfather clock beside the kitchen door ticks a few minutes before the hour.
I know what I have to say.
“Nana. I’m sorry…” I look down at her furry slippers and try to find a way to say what words always get wrong. How do you find a way to tell someone you love them but you hate some of the things they’ve done? I know part of being grown-up means knowing how to say you’re sorry and really mean it. I have a lot to be sorry for.
“…about what I said yesterday. I don’t believe you really wanted a leading man. But I think you blame me for what happened to James.”
“I don’t. I’m just afraid. You want to win. I can’t blame you for that. But you can’t see that the gift you have can be dangerous…” Nana cocks her head and looks confused. “You’re from a long line of strong girls,” she says as she fixes her gaze on the genealogies locked away safely behind a gold-mesh screen.
“Yes. I’m the one chosen to be famous,” I say. Nana cringes. She doesn’t like the word, fame. I know this. But there’s a part of me that has to face the secrets in our family that Nana’s trying to keep in the closet. She thinks my mother went crazy trying to become famous. She knows fame played a part in my brother’s suicide. I need to tell her that fame isn’t going to destroy me, so long as I don’t take it too seriously. We’ve got secrets. All families do. But we aren’t content to keep our secrets hidden away. Maybe this is a good thing. Truth is, we’re a noble, theatrical family with a threadbare coat of arms that probably should’ve stayed in the Old World.
I remember the first line of my brother’s last letter: Well, sis, if you’re gonna rattle a few chains, might as well wake up the whole crypt.
And he did. At least, he woke me up. I can understand why my Nana’s afraid. She lost a sister. She lost a nephew. She can’t afford to lose anyone else to some dark, family curse. Tonight she’s probably going to see what I did to Rex on one of the stations that stream the latest scenes, and then I’m going to get more hand-wringing and that I’m-becoming-too-much-like-a-boy monologue. So I’ve got to head her off at the pass.
“Rex is history, Nana. He tried to take advantage of me and no one does that to a virgin saint.” Of course it was more than that, and I think she knows it. She gives me a wry smile. A smile that tells me I’ve got something my bloodline didn’t have—that secret that isn’t automatically bequeathed upon the rich and the beautiful.
Another long beat.
“Nana? What did you mean yesterday when you said we had to talk about my character?” I raise my hands with my palms upturned. “How does Francis know all this stuff about us? I know I signed a bunch of papers giving him the right to look into my past, but there’s just no way he could’ve…”
Nana looks over to the big, oak dining room table, the empty seat where my brother used to sit. I look at the brass lock on the bookcase that holds our history.
“I don’t think either of us told anyone,” she repeats. She folds her arms across her chest and holds a deep breath. She does this when she’s digging for the right words. “Have you noticed that the rules of this reality show have changed since they started shooting?” Nana pulls her chair closer to mine and makes bunny ears when she says “reality show.”
I nod, slowly. At first I think Nana’s trying to change the subject. This show is about a bunch of teenagers who become a bunch of historic characters trying to save the world—the rules were simple in the beginning; girls fought girls, boys fought boys. The last couple fall in love and get married. It’s not history. It’s Hollywood.
But now things are getting weird, or at least confusing. I was too lost in that just-be-the-last-girl-standing routine to see what Nana’s trying to get me to see: Francis is trying to get us to share some of our darkest secrets…about love, sex, violence. I feel a jolt through my chest. Nana isn’t trying to change the subject. My personal life has become the subject. Was I chosen because the House of de Menich is chock-full of dark secrets?
“He’s a strange man…this Francis,” she says. “But something about him troubled me from the start.” She studies the long shadows across the dining room table. She taps her long fingers against her knee. “Why would an artistic genius who won a Golden Boy for a brilliant film about war in the Middle East, stoop to do some reality-drama?”
“Because he wants to make a lot of money?”
Nana nods, approvingly. We in the House of de Menich are nothing if not practical. “Yes. But it’s more than that. He’s the kind of visionary who thinks he can reinvent the genre.” And then she gives me that grave, solemn look. “He’s up to something, my precious Maid.” She turns and looks to the computer on her roll-top desk; it has an eerie glow against the windows, like votive candles in a darkened church.
“The numbers are getting so strange,” she muses.
The numbers are a breakdown on the demographics of all the viewers who watch the trailers of selected scenes played on the internet. I don’t know if Francis is an auteur or an imbecile, but he sure knows how to generate publicity.
“It’s not just kids watching you anymore. Thirteen percent who watched last night were over thirty years old. Tell me, my precious, what that comes to if the total was five million, three hundred thousand?”
I close my eyes, see a collection of numbers flowing across a screen. I let out a sigh of relief. My Nana isn’t trying to stress me out—although being watching by millions of people can stress anyone out. Numbers are my sanctuary, my safety net. I’m good with numbers, most child actors are. They’re precise and have relationships most people miss.
“Six hundred and eighty-nine thousand.”
She smiles. Doing the numbers on the viewers with Nana was routine, and I imagine I like it the way other kids like playing video games, but I wonder if the scene of me smashing the hunk’s nose will be played as a teaser on WebTV tonight.
She takes another long, foreboding breath. “The social worker called today.”
It sounds like a line from the wrong family drama. There’d actually been two social workers. The first had visited me when I woke up in the hospital after the car accident in California. The second had come out to the cottage Nana had rented for us in Narragansett; Hispanic, tight bun, metal clipboard—talked about how hard it must have been to lose my mother. How wonderful my brother was being about helping me get well.
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. Really. She just wanted to see how you were getting along.” This is Nana-speak for something’s wrong. “We think maybe you should take a break.” Nana fixes her eyes on the furry slippers I bought her for Christmas.
Take a break? What happened to being the last girl standing? What happened to all those promises I made as I stood over my brother’s grave?
“You mean give up, don’t you?”
“You’ve been under a lot of pressure, my humble maid.”
“You mean quit, don’t you? Give up. Like the rest of our family. Just walk away. Like my brother did.”
“No, Cease. Everyone’s proud of you. I’m sure he’s looking down just beaming with—”
“That’s so fucking typical. Just like your sister. Just give up when the Big Apple tells you you’re too old and washed up. Just give up and move out west to reinvent yourself as a star. Well. Just what the hell am I gonna do now? Without him I don’t have a clue how to make it. I’ll wind up old and single, clinging to some stupid dream of being from a rich, storied family. Only we both know that’s one big lie.”
Nana looks as if she’s going to cry. I wasn’t reading her right when she put down the article from RHI. She wasn’t trying to tell me this was proof of my shot at the big time. She’s trying to tell me enough is enough. She’s putting her foot down and those furry slippers are suddenly made of steel.
Help. Nana could nix everything if she wanted to. She could call Francis right now. And in a few hours she’ll probably head down the hall to her bedroom and her other desk that has another computer. Francis will probably already have the scene up of my bashing in the big hunk’s nose. And when she sees that it’ll be goodbye red carpet.
I clench my teeth. I sit down. Put my hands in my lap. This isn’t a childish tantrum. I’m really afraid. Does she really think after everything that’s happened to us we can just leave the theater? Does my Nana really think art imitates life? What a bunch of crap. Art doesn’t imitate life. Life’s one big lie, and art is really all we have to get by on. At least that’s the way it is in the House of de Menich.
“Nana. Listen to me. I know I might have a problem with intimacy. But I’m an actor, and I don’t intend to quit now. Rex is history. Trust me, he got what he deserved. Bradley is the last boy standing, at least until Francis brings in that big star he’s been talking about. Bradley’s the sweetest boy in the world. I think we’re really gonna make some—” I stop. I don’t know which is more offensive to my Nana—all the violence or the sex that I know Francis is dying to film.
Tell her the truth, Cease.
“Yeah. I was jealous when James fell in love with Philip Van der Ebb. But not of that boy who’d stolen my brother’s heart. I was jealous of his first suitor—your sister.”
There. Let the whole crypt hear. Let the chorus sing their condemnation. Truth is, our family tragedy wouldn’t be complete without a walk-on from our beloved boy Oedipus. I unleash a fury of hurtful words until Nana says “Stop” and turns her head away. This is what happens when you don’t have a decent drama to hide behind. This is what happens when you hold that proverbial mirror up to life and see how cracked it really is—when you don’t have a character you can blame for all your real-life flaws. I look at my Nana and try to see Lady Macbeth—or even Susan B. Anthony—but see only an old woman who rubs her face with her wrinkled hands as if she’s trying to stifle tears. I just can’t keep my hands off a scab. I take a deep breath.
“You were chosen for this role, Cease, and you were chosen for reasons that go a whole lot deeper than fame.” She says it with the same solemn tone that she used after I hung up with my agent the day I got this part. One door had closed, she had said. And another had opened. I thought the new space I found myself in would be a helluva lot less weird and cryptic than the old one. I stand, but don’t dare cross the line between us.
“So, why do you want me to quit?”
“I’m scared,” she says. “I’ve lost a sister and a nephew. I can’t afford to lose…” her voice trails off. I take her hand over the imaginary threshold.
“I’m scared too, Nana. I know Francis is fucking with my head, but maybe this is the only way we can face our past.” I raise my hands above my shoulders as if I’m trying to pull down the words that might bridge the gap between us.
“I’m sorry, Nana.”
But there’s a whole lot more that needs to be said. There’s a giant secret that sits between us, a secret that’s been left unsaid for generations, and maybe the only way we can face it is on stage, the place where make-believe still makes sense. We retreat to our corners of the apartment—Nana to her roll-top desk overlooking the cloisters, and me to the farthest point west in the living room to look down on the traffic on First Avenue and that silver monolith filled with translators who might know the word for the kind of love two young people can share but most grown-ups would never really understand.
The doorbell rings, the script arrives, and like two actors tired of playing real life Nana and I rush to see what’s in store for tomorrow. I let out a sigh of relief when I read it’s a catfight with Eve. I hand over the script the way I showed Nana the scapular, and she accepts it as a peace offering. Nana’s never met Eve, but Eve’s a type we used to see a lot of when we lived on the Upper East Side.
“Eve’s just like Serena Van der Ebb.” I don’t need to ask Nana if she remembers Serena. Serena was the Queen Bee of the Upper East Side. And Serena had a brother, Phil, one of the handsomest boys at The Dayton School—the boy who broke my brother’s heart.
Have you ever been to a place as enchanting as anything you’ve seen on the silver screen? I have, and it didn’t take much of an imagination. After the car crash that killed my mother, Nana took us east and rented a cottage for us in Narragansett, near the Hamptons. I think she knew we needed a place to let go of our past before we settled into the big city. After all the trauma and heartache of losing my mother, I had my brother back, and I felt relief that I no longer had to compete with her for his attention. That cottage with all its mismatched furniture was a springboard where we studied all the tragic figures who’d save us from our all-too-real past. It was also in that place we stumbled on a secret.
I can close my eyes and still see that look of apprehension on my Nana’s face as she tucked us into separate beds each night and that same look of apprehension as she gently untangled our limbs from the same bed the next morning. I lied to Manny the talk-show host when I said my first memory was waking to the sight of a cross on the wall. My first memory was waking in my brother’s arms. My first thought was frustration—frustration that I couldn’t control those arms, feel their every sensation. It was then I started telling people he wasn’t just my brother. That he was my tutor, my bodyguard, my rock, and soon enough—with the help of Shakespeare—James de Menich became a host of characters I could love with all my heart. But he was my brother. He was three years older and had inherited the green eyes and blond hair of our mother. He had bony limbs that bronzed in the sun. I’d inherited the brown hair and dark eyes of our father, a man we’d never met.
I don’t know where this kind of love comes from. All the enmity and rivalry common to most siblings was as strange to us as the strange place we now found ourselves. The first social worker in California said this kind of bonding was common to abused children. I’m trying to remember the word she used to describe what we had…it had a clinical sound (even then, words were untrustworthy strangers my brother told me to be wary of)…it meant we were bound together, and I insisted it was in a good way, hand-in-hand, connected at the hip. It felt as if we were two drops of quicksilver from one of those old, broken thermometers—two drops that could sense each other, regroup and bond. Our bloodline was filled with loyal, sanguine siblings, he assured me as he made straight all those crooked lines in the de Menich genealogy that he became obsessed with after we’d arrived in New York.
But I can still see my brother lying on the wet rocks overlooking the Atlantic. He looked like one of those nymphs you see in a Maxfield Parrish print. If I close my eyes, I can see that gorgeous cluster of freckles on his perfect Roman nose—and I understood even if he’d never shared the great secrets of drama and fame, his beauty alone inspired me to become a performer. But share he did. James told me stories about drama in the big city. How the young and the talented became famous overnight, how with a little luck—which we were long overdue for—we’d catch a big break and become big names on Broadway. I followed my brother’s outstretched arms to the heavens as he said “as big as Tracy and Hepburn.” I didn’t understand why our names needed to be any bigger than they were, but I was certainly ready for a name change because I hated “Cecile” and thought my mother had given it to me to make me feel old-fashioned, frail.
I could almost see the city that my brother conjured as I looked beyond those wet rocks and listened to him with my ear planted firmly on his bony chest. But we had to be careful. Gotham was a green-eyed monster with buildings for legs, my brother warned. And it was then I knew whatever crazy, rags-to-riches plot he’d hatch, my brother wasn’t going to sugarcoat our dreams. He told me I’d only make it through hard work and by our sticking together. We were quick studies. Nana had us tested and confirmed what our mother had found; that we were prodigies—good with numbers, even better with comprehension, and soon we were reading Shakespeare and meeting all those troubled characters who could save us from our all-too-troubled past.
At night, Nana would rearrange the furniture of the cottage to make the stage and would become Lady Capulet or Lady Montague or a host of other characters we needed to shout at or cry to. Nana wasn’t the aggressive stage-mom our mother had been, and her look of apprehension gradually faded as she saw what kind of chemistry we created together.
One night after playing Romeo and Juliet I felt James studying me at the kitchen table. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was already picking out the monologue I’d use at my Juilliard audition. He told me I was too young for Katherine from Taming of the Shrew and her monologues were way overused. Then he took a cork off of Nana’s bottle of burgundy and held it over the candle flame. He rubbed out a mustache beneath my nose. It felt as if in a single stroke I’d become that secret object of my brother’s dreams.
It was one of those last lazy days in September that I learned to lock my legs around his skinny waist and he cried “Cease and Desist,” and I cried with joy because I loved that name and thought it would finally allow us to reinvent ourselves. It linked us like a gorgeous never-ending chain. Cease was nothing without Desist. Desist was just a lost, lonely boy without Cease. I didn’t know at the time what that term really meant, and when I found out I laughed in that bittersweet way we’d gotten used to. It didn’t matter. We were partners in crime. The most beautiful boy in the world had molded me like clay, breathed the fire of life into me, and I’d been reborn. We were bound from the start as only star-crossed lovers could be—and no one was going to tear us apart.
My brother never told me how combustible this game we played would become. I tried to play him. Tried to please him. Tried to love him. Tried to be him. And in the process transformed from an innocent waif into a young Hepburn whose beauty was made nonpareil when she put on those pants and the boy in her stood up to the world.
My brother was not a dark, tragic person, but he was pretty serious about my preparation for the stage, and when he studied me that night I caught a glimpse of his joy at seeing me transform. It was fleeting—as if I’d pulled back a veil on an all-too-serious artist who’d finally let down his guard and allowed himself to fall in love with his creation. I didn’t want it to end and raced over to his clothes cabinet and pulled out a pair of his jeans and one of his button-down shirts. I stood before him. Without a word he handed me a monologue and then he did something I’ll never forget: he placed his thumbs against my temples and gently rubbed, once…twice—in slow revolutions.
I touched my upper lip with my forefinger and then I felt it; a jolt through my chest that shot down to my feet and returned in a steady current that felt as if he’d just cast a wizard’s spell. But it had been real. I don’t remember much of what happened after that. I remember my lips moving and the words steadily rising from my chest, phrases that felt like a golden waterfall of eloquence Shakespeare had found but I was giving life to; I can only remember that the words felt like notes, and each issued forth from my untrained tongue in perfect pitch; I can remember their rhythm, too, a gorgeous melody I could only claim being a host to, because I’d never delivered a speech that felt like a glorious, unrehearsed song. I remember footsteps—Nana had been “backstage” in the kitchen, and she’d rushed in as I finished, only it hadn’t really felt that I’d finished at all—that is, it didn’t feel the way I was used to feeling after giving a monologue—in that stagy way where I merely delivered lines… I looked out beyond the footlights (a lamp we’d found in the closet) and saw beneath a bare bulb my Nana’s glowing, tight-lipped smile. I knew in that moment that she loved me, but I also knew she would become as tough a taskmaster as my brother already was. She gave a single, formal nod, then said, “Cease de Menich, you are meant for the stage.”
James told me the speech was Viola in Twelfth Night, a play about a girl who transformed herself into a boy to hide her affection for a royal she was not supposed to love. There was a single tear on his cheek that he wiped away as inconspicuously as possible. In the silence we both knew we’d stumbled upon a secret that went deeper than some theater game. We turned to Nana, whose look of pride had been replaced by that now familiar look of apprehension.
Little did I know, the game we’d stumbled upon had been played by others; not just by wannabe actors, not even by the stars we studied each night in the movies, not even those big names on the marquees Nana ferried us to every weekend of that fateful summer—but real people with real names who appeared in the all-too-real genealogy in the House of de Menich.
But it’s my Nana’s expression that I most remember about that strange evening. It was really two expressions—a look of pride, and that look of apprehension or fear, together, in a Janus-like tug-of-war. My brother had opened a door for me that night…a simple ritual that turned me from an unbeautiful girl into a young actress no one could take their eyes off…I had “it”—that elusive elixir all wannabes fished for.
I got noticed. I got parts—and I was lucky, too. But there’s a downside to the “X-factor” we’d inherited, a dirty secret no one wants to talk about. I remember now what the first social worker had said after she told us we were normal children who had overcome some incredibly abnormal behavior. How she’d crouched beside me after I finally got out of that hospital bed—gave me that grave look I didn’t understand. She tried to explain that just as people inherited good genes they could also inherit bad genes. All I knew as I studied my brother’s solemn face over her shoulder was that his wounds went a lot deeper than mine. Abuse of this kind binds you, she’d said, and that’s not always a good thing. But I ignored her. Cecile de Menich was dead. She’s died back in that hospital bed. Cease had taken her place, and together Cease and Desist were bound hand-in-hand, primed to make history.
I loved my brother more than anyone else in the world, but when he finally tore himself away, whole chunks of me went with him. A part of me wishes we’d never left that cottage, a part of me that would’ve been content just adoring my brother’s beautiful face on those wet rocks. But the lights of Gotham beckoned, with marquees looming overhead just waiting to hold the names of the latest tragedians, a couple of prodigious teenagers who had discovered the secret potion to that elixir called fame.
Tracy and Hepburn. Will and Grace. Cease and Desist.
“Well, just because you’re masculine doesn’t mean you’re a dyke,” Molly the makeup lady says as she daubs my cheekbones with ruddy hues. I want to ask her what she does to Catherine the Great—aka the Ice Princess—to make her skin look so perfect. I know what she does to make me look so plain. I watch my luminescent cheekbones get reduced to dirty mounds, and then she opens my mouth so she can insert beside my molars the rubber prosthetics that fatten my face.
“Is that what they’re saying about me?” I ask.
“I’m not allowed to comment on the trades or the other finalists,” she says in an officious tone. But then she gives me a hug that tells me she’s rooting for me—she’ll be getting a lot of credit if I make it to the final round. The first day of shooting Molly cut my shoulder-length hair into a crude pageboy and dulled the color of my wide-set brown eyes with contact lenses. And that was just the beginning. I didn’t really feel “masculine.” In fact, with each new layer of makeup that robbed me of my beauty, I felt I’d arrived at a place I’d never been before. A place where I could let go of all those phony things an actress does to make you think there’s only one way to play a girl. What did Frenchmen say about Jeanne in her day? Maybe some of the same things Rex is now saying about me. I look down at Molly’s Doc Martens, her black jeans, and say, “Do you know why they killed her? Do you know why Jeanne was burned at the stake?”
Molly shakes her head.
“Because she refused to take off her manly attire. Not for leading an army. Not for trying to unite France. But for dressing and acting like a boy, they pronounced her a heretic. It’s in all the transcripts of the—urf. Mm naaaht kaddding…” I point to my mouth. One of my faux molars has come loose and I sound like Daffy Duck.
Molly steps back to check my hair. “Maybe becoming a boy was the only way she could get the Church and all the people to see the kind of love she stood for. I mean, maybe cross-dressing is the only way people can see there’s a love that stands outside sex.”
Maybe Molly’s on to something, but I don’t have time to think about it. I’ve got a scene today with Susan B. Anthony. I’ve got a score to settle with Eve, the not-so-nice girl who’s playing her. I look down at the script in my lap as Molly looks down at her tablet.
“Claude wants to see you.”
I feel my shoulders tense, and just as quick Molly’s fingers are kneading the knots in them. God, how I wish I could get that from a boy. She knows I’m afraid. Claude’s the costume designer for this hybrid-reality, and he’s the best there is; he has two Emmys to prove it. Famous Francis may be the director, but as every girl in this business knows, whether you play a princess or a pauper the costume designer determines your fate. Molly presses her lips into my ear.
“It’s okay. He saw you in Vampire Grrls. He likes your work.”
I let out a sigh.
“And you’ve got girl power behind you. I can feel it.” She kisses my ear. I turn and give her a peck on the cheek that comes awfully close to the corner of her mouth. For a moment I let down my guard and feel it. How much I want to fall in love. Does it really matter who you fall in love with so long as the love you share makes you feel whole?
I have my head buried in my script and accidentally bump into Catherine the Great—the Ice Princess—who’s waiting outside Molly’s trailer.
We’ve only been in two scenes together and neither were confrontations. I expect a shove or some unkind words, but she just steps back and says, “No problem.” She’s my height, and the morning light through the clouds over the Meadowlands gives her porcelain skin an ethereal beauty that makes me want to run home to Nana.
Stay cool…There’s a reason I’ve been chosen.
“Looks like someone’s in a hurry.”
I scramble for a cool comeback. “Well. The clergy’s got me on the run.”
She actually cracks a smile, holds out her hand. “I’m Stephanie.”
“Yes,” I say, as if I don’t know that. As if my Nana and I didn’t comb through her entire online history. As if I don’t know that Stephanie Coombs was plucked from some boarding school in Massachusetts to attend Yale Drama, a year younger than when I made Juilliard. That she’s the only other remaining character who’s had any stage experience; while I was playing Romeo and Juliet off-Broadway, Stephanie had embodied the strong-willed Regina in Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Eugene O’Neill. I study her face—an impenetrable coat of armor, but delicate too. Stephanie is porcelain. I am stainless steel. If perfection is a flaw, she’s got it in spades. No skeletons hanging in her closet. Her eyes have those brilliant kaleidoscope streaks I’ve seen on famous models. She’s wearing a black turtleneck and jeans, which means she’ll probably head over to Claude right after he’s done with me.
Stephanie dips her face back to catch the morning light. “Well, in the words of a character from a much lesser film, may the odds be ever in your favor.” She delivers the line with such dental precision that I actually look down at my script, because it feels as if we’re rehearsing. But it’s the look she gives that freezes me. Her mouth turns in a knowing smile. Those eyes that tell me she’s been in control since the moment I walked out the door. She has the power to seal my fate. It’s the same look my mother gave me just before she turned the wheel. I step back.
“Yes,” I stammer. “A much lesser film.” I hurry off to Claude.
Claude’s a tiny man with a thin, reedy voice who pronounces my name with a thick Italian accent.
“Miss de Menichi,” he says, and the way he gives it an ending makes me feel as if I really am from an ancient, royal family. The de Menici family or maybe even the house of an emperor. I instinctively take off my purple sweatshirt and look around at the double-wide that’s twice the size of my trailer but crammed so full of costumes on racks that we have little more than a few feet to move.
I’d stood before Claude after the final callback when I still didn’t know if I’d gotten the part. He had an inscrutable stare that told me the only thing he could see was what I was wearing, and the only thing he was thinking was what I could be wearing.
I look over at the creation he lays across the bed and feel my heart skip a beat. It is a gorgeous, sequined, little black dress, only it isn’t really black—at least, not all black, for as the track lights play over the glitter it gives off rich umber and crimson hues.
“My goodness, child, what have you eaten today?”
I’ve stripped down to my panties, and most of my ribs are showing in his full-length mirror.
“I thought designers were supposed to starve their models until they get really skinny.” I think about the pukey green concoction the caterer delivered to my trailer. On my first day of shooting I weighed one-hundred thirty pounds. Last night the scale said one-hundred eighteen, not good when you’re five-foot-ten.
“Not this designer.” He picks up his phone and calls the caterer. “I’m ordering a soup for you that will go down easy and is packed with carbs.” He folds his small arms across his chest. “Trust me. I make all my models drink a whole bowl in front of me before I dress them.” He flashes his mean look. “You will drink it, young lady, or you won’t be wearing a stitch of my creations.”
I feel my head swim. I never thought famous people could be so compassionate. I imagine myself in that gorgeous dress on the bed, turning and turning, and the sequins making perfect auburn waves that evoke the gentle sounds of crystal clinking and witty conversation in a big house filled with friends and admirers. I want to run outside and twirl and twirl and twirl until I get dizzy the way I used to when I wrapped my legs around my brother’s waist and he cried “Cease and Desist.” But then I imagine Eve watching me from her trailer window, probably telling one of her rich-bitch friends what a poor loser I am.
An air horn blasts outside. I look over and see my name on a clear plastic bag with drab-colored clothes that he’s taken from the rack.
Claude measures and nods. “I’ve been watching you, Miss de Menichi…” he says and then he taps his thumb to the tip of his fingers. His mouth opens and his eyes roll to the top of the trailer. He steps back. A knock on the door as the caterer delivers a bowl of soup and hurries away. I’m so hungry I want to gulp the whole thing down. Claude pulls out a chair in front of the vanity. I take the spoon and gently lay the cloth napkin across my thigh.
“Tell me, child. What are you so afraid of?”
I look around the trailer. He must be talking to another actor. I give him my furious, cool, mean look.
“Afraid? Moi? Maybe you should ask that hunk whose nose I turned to mush.”
“Maybe,” Claude says, nonplussed, “you think you can take the podium just by punching out all your adversaries?”
“It’s worked so far,” I murmur.
I don’t know what he means. I can feel that itch under my ribs as I spoon another mouthful of soup. Maybe Claude’s onto something. In the beginning, on the battlefields all I felt was rage. Francis had to hire stunt people to fight me after I’d hurt so many of the untrained extras who faced me in battle. It felt as if I was swinging wildly through a storm of hate. He follows my gaze along his frieze. Some of the famous faces I recognize. I want to be up there, too. That’s what I said in every interview, what I told Nana the day after my brother’s funeral. Maybe all those faces knew the secret I’d only recently discovered; how easily fame comes to the brokenhearted…
“I’ve dressed some of them,” he says with a sigh. “Hepburn was beautiful and talented, but she was nothing without Tracy.” His eyes through those rimless spectacles are begging me to see something. “Do you know why she became a legend?”
“Yeah. She was beautiful and talented.”
“Hollywood and New York are filled with beauty and talent.” He points at the faces. “But all of those actors up there have one thing in common that made them who they are.”
“They all lost someone dear to them. They all had someone they loved die long before he or she should’ve. I remember Hepburn’s eyes when I dressed her for The Glass Menagerie. Fierce, like a locked door, but I caught a glimpse—just a glimmer—behind that obstinate mask. There was a world of hurt she could barely contain.”
I drop my head. I feel Claude’s small hands on my broad shoulders pulling me in.
“Cease. Listen to me. I’m an old man and you’re a dark horse who could take the podium.”
“What do I have to do?”
He holds up a small finger beneath my nose. “Be yourself. That’s what got you the part. While all the other girls were praying and acting contrite, you stood up and railed at the gods. That’s a character. That’s Jeanne d’Arc.”
“What? Did you dress her, too?”
“Funny. I like you. But there’s one more thing you’ve got to do.”
“Confess to what?”
“Love. I can see someone in your eyes. I saw what you did to that brute yesterday, and he definitely had it coming. But you can’t hide behind that mask much longer.” He steps back and measures my neck. “Whoever it is you’re running from. You’ll know when the time is right. You’ll feel it in the words. But when it comes, don’t hold back.”
Claude gives me a long look I can’t read. After a knock on the door a production assistant enters and says Francis needs to see me. I get my things, hug Claude instinctively. He kisses me on the forehead the way Nana does and returns to his work.
“There’s a storm coming.” Francis studies the treetops and the leaden sky through a viewfinder as he waits outside my trailer. “It’s a blessing in disguise,” he says, “because next to blood, snow’s the toughest thing to fake.” It comes out really creepy, but I smile, stomp my Uggs on the metal steps and look down from the sky to his fat little body.
“Cease?” He isn’t calling me by my character’s name. Not a good sign.
“Yes, sir.” I open the door of my trailer and let him enter first.
“Is your Nana here today?” He looks at the pile of clothes on my bed. I offer him my chair. I sit on the bed.
“No. Are you firing me?” I blurt out.
“Whoa.” He slaps his hand on his thigh and says, “Why would you think that?” But it comes out pretty phony. He knows the entire cast is afraid of him. He looks a lot smaller sitting in my threadbare trailer than he did hovering overhead on a crane as I punched my way across the battlefields. I wonder if he hadn’t become a director what he would’ve been. He pushes the fur-lined hood of his parka off his head.
“We just have some changes to the next scene. In fact, we’re changing some of the rules, letting our viewers—your fans, have more of a say.”
You’re up to something. My Nana and I are on to you, mister.
I can feel those words well up in my chest like a clenched fist. I figure Francis could’ve been a plausible dictator, fat and mean with an all-knowing smile that hides his sick satisfaction with other people’s suffering; yes—a mean god all young performers prayed to because he held that potion, that secret called fame we’d all tasted and wanted more of.
I stare him down. I was chosen for this role to face my past. Why run from it anymore?
“How did you get the lines my brother wrote in his suicide note?”
“You know what I’m talking about, Francis.” His expression holds a big lie, I think, as if Francis was a clumsy thief I’d caught going through the private files in my head.
He shifts in the rickety chair. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cease—”
“My brother committed suicide. You—or at least your writers—put two of the lines from his last letter into my dialogue with Rex.”
I can feel a single tear descend my cheekbone, but I pull back. I’m not going to let Francis inside my head. I level a stare at the mean god. If fatso here wants a wilting fleur-de-lis, he’s found the wrong actress.
“You probably got it from one of Eve’s rich friends on the Upper East Side. Or that stupid therapist my Nana sent my brother to.”
“Cease. You’ve got to believe me. None of the writers got any of that information.”
Was God being nice? He tugs at a sock hanging over his bean boots. He looks like Humpty Dumpty with those spindly legs and that egg-shaped body. But he’s still got that gravelly voice that comes out all stentorian as he says, “I was worried when your agent told me there’d been a death in your family, but he assured me that you had something to prove. And when I watched you put on that armor I thought maybe your brother had opened up a space for you.” He stops, looks at his watch. “I guess I’m not really good at communicating with actors. But so far you’ve been giving me what I need…” his voice trails off and then he props himself up as if he suddenly remembers why he’s come.
“I’m sorry, Cease. My writers have access to all the interviews you gave to the casting directors, but they can’t do any research on their own. Not with any of your friends, and certainly not with any therapist your brother was seeing.
I shake my head, defiant. Where the hell did they get that line?
I close my eyes, see Nana’s face when she said, no one told anyone…there are larger things at stake. Her face was solemn, but more than that; she looked scared, too. What larger things?
I look down at my feet.
“My brother was a great actor and my best friend. Together we had chemistry. He had some problems—problems that ran in the family.”
“Well. You certainly seem to have a lot in common with the character.” Francis hugs himself. “Maybe you’ve found a new space. I remember something Martin Sheen once said to me. He said the hardest character he ever had to play was himself. I guess life really is stranger than make-believe.” I feel the words hang in the air of the threadbare trailer. I think of the line between Nana and me, and how I’ll never be able to cross it until I stand up to my past, my character.
“I’m quitting, Francis.” It feels as if a new character had just entered the room and taken my role—a grown-up character who’s tired of taking shit from other grown-ups. “This is disrespectful to my family. Whoever is doing it is sick.” I fold my hands across my chest. Fame feels like a strange thrill-ride, wild and exhilarating; but it also feels like an itch I’ll never reach—a promise I made over my brother’s coffin I’ll never be able to keep.
“I understand.” Francis takes out a wrinkled sheet of paper from the pocket of his parka. “So I guess you wouldn’t be interested in seeing this?”
He holds it out. I take it, slowly.
Jeanne d’Arc Monologue.
A full page. I feel the bolt of grief in my chest shift. Another breath. I read the first line—I’m addressing a crowd of the resistance fighters—I’m standing beside a young man and it feels as if I’m speaking from a podium, the kind of space only the last girl standing could occupy. My legs relax as I feel the texture and shape of the words rise in my chest, as if I’ve just tried on that gorgeous dress I saw on Claude’s bed and it’s a perfect fit—each word as polished, as resplendent as a victory speech only
Shakespeare could craft. It sounds like that Henry V speech I’d practiced at the rented cottage in Narragansett.
We few. We merry band of men—yes, Henry V at Agincourt, only it feels much more personal, as if I’ve lived these lines and now am getting to share them with the world. This is the speech of the last girl standing. I eye Francis suspiciously as I realize I can’t hide my excitement.
“But—perhaps you’re taking too much on,” he says, and slaps his fat hands against his fat thighs. “Perhaps I should call your Nana—”
“No,” I plead. “I can do this. I’m about to find a new space—this character, Jeanne—I can feel it.” I don’t really know what I’m saying.
“All right, then.” He rises.
“I’m glad we had a chance to clear things up,” I say, still trying to cling to my grown-up role.
“Good. Well, tomorrow in the forest, you’ll help Bradley and you’ll fall in love…” He pats his knees and stands. But I’m way ahead of him.
“How have the rules changed, Francis?”
“Well. Now that I’ve assembled an ensemble of good actors, I’ll stand back and let the scenes take shape on their own—you know I love the way actors can improvise.”
He’s lying, or at least he’s not telling me the real reason he’s about to change the rules.
“Francis,” I say. “Just what are you making, here? You call this a reality-drama and you release some scenes on WebTV every night, but you also call it a film. So what is it, really?”
“I guess I haven’t decided where this project is going to take me.”
He’s lying…He’s not going to stop the scenes, because he wants to see just how hungry for fame each of us has become. He wants to see more blood and more sex, and I doubt there’ll be anyone who has the guts to stop him.
At the door Francis says, “You’ll have some competition tomorrow. Susan B. Anthony wants Bradley, and only one of you will advance to the next round.” Francis screws his face into a question mark and asks, “What does that feel like? Having your best friend taken away from you?” And just before he pulls his hood on he says, “After all, Brad’s like a brother to you. And you know what happens to anyone who gets between you and your brother.”
Francis knows more than he’s letting on. I can stand and fight, or I can cut and run. No. I can’t back down.
“A little medieval love triangle,” I say. “Great twist. Jeanne and I will look forward to it.”
“I want you to run some lines with Eve. You’ll be using real weapons and I don’t want any more broken noses. You can use my trailer if you want. I know how you feel about her, but I really think you can learn from each other.”
Real weapons. New rules. Or maybe no rules at all. But someone out there really is trying to help me. Who?
I look out my window. Through the morning mist, I can see Eve in the clearing, swinging her broadsword like some cunning Amazon. The fight director’s showing her a few tricks.
I’ve got a few tricks of my own, sister.
I wish I didn’t hate Eve so much, but I knew from the beginning we were cast to be enemies. On the surface, we’ve nothing in common. She’s never set foot on a stage. She’s done TV and soaps; her moves are as predictable and fake as her breasts. She’s only here—I’m convinced, anyway—because she’s a rich girl from the Upper East Side whose father’s a famous writer in Hollywood.
But in real life she reminds me of the girl I tried so hard to become when we first moved to New York, when we first lived in an apartment on East End Avenue and 89th and my brother came back from Dayton one day and said he’d just met the girl I was to model myself after—a rich girl named Serena Van der Ebb who had a brother named Phil whom my brother fell in love with. If Serena had ever deigned to become something as lowly as an actress, she’d have been just like Eve—a type I would’ve steered clear of but my brother couldn’t avoid.
Sounds like art imitating life, right?
All these young people playing people who remind us of the real people in our lives, that’s what art is —only it goes deeper than that because Eve actually knows Serena and her brother. When Eve first told me, I didn’t let it freak me out. I figured there was some rich-bitch website all of those girls had secret passwords for. Besides, this “small-world coincidence” gave me an advantage over her from the start. I knew Eve’s mannerisms. I studied her the way a good actor studies a character she wants to become. All those girls on the Upper East Side were just vampires anyway, with gestures I’d learned to read like secret signs, and secrets they held as tightly as their money from generation to generation.
But I’m not afraid of Eve anymore. I know what I have to do to win.
A knock on the door. A technician enters and informs me we have to re-shoot the crane scene from yesterday. Be ready in five minutes. The technicians attach cables to my bodysuit and then a crane lifts me fifty feet above the fake snow and rubble. I hear a series of cracks. A pulley the size of a watermelon comes loose from the top of the crane. It’s headed straight for my face. I close my eyes and just before it hits me I hear the thumping of wings and the pulley swerves aside. The safety cable pulls me back up like a bungee cord. I land lightly with a thud and try to shrug it off but I just can’t shake that sound of thumping…and something I’d seen, too. I look down at my feet, that harness wrapped around my waist, and think I should be dead now or my face should be smashed in. I close my eyes and see it again; a small circle of light over a stage…It feels as if a giant hand had pulled back a veil and I’d gotten a glimpse of what the backstage of life looks like—all those invisible hands pulling ropes, pushing scenery to make things appear real.
It wasn’t a stage. It was a real place, a place I’ve been to.
My first impulse is to run home to my Nana—I need a hug and a brownie—but I take another breath and follow the cables that had been attached to my waist all the way back to the crane and its operator. I race back to my trailer and find the phone on my bed, but I’d left it off the charger and the battery is dead.
Had Nana called? Maybe she needs me.
And then in the silence, I take a deep breath and tell myself I have to let go. My arms feel lighter, my legs less sore as if I’ve stumbled into a new space where I could just let go of my past and give that speech I was born to give. Yes, there would be hugs and brownies at home, but there would also be those pregnant pauses and the questions about the past, my character, about what had really happened between James and me on the last night of his life. I step out into the cold with the down comforter wrapped around me. I lift my arms to the cloudless sky.
So that’s what Being Saved feels like?
But no sooner do I feel this when the panic returns, that horrible aloneness I felt in Manny’s studio during my interview. I run back and throw myself on the bed. I take my pillows and sandwich my head, trying to re-create that sound.
A thumping like wings.
I mash the pillows against my ears. Harder and harder. I close my eyes, see the night and the broken glass, the wounds on my brother’s face, and the only thing to stop his fall was a rope round his neck.
Saved? No. It’s a trick, Cease. That’s all God is, just a bastard magician, a giant puppet-master who pulls at our heartstrings. Life’s just a sick joke; that’s what I thought the morning I woke up and found James hanging in the closet.
I look down and see I’ve torn a hole in my down comforter. Feathers hang in the air overhead. It makes the girl standing overhead look like she has wings. Maybe she is an angel. Maybe there are angels with New Jersey accents, but I doubt it. A production assistant gives me a gentle nudge and says it will be at least another hour and to call if I want to run lines.
I call Nana. I tell her I’m staying over in my trailer tonight, that I need my space. She says she understands.
“Cease. Where are you?”
“We’re in the Meadowlands. Doesn’t it say that?” Francis lists all our locations online.
“They’ve taken it all down.”
“Nana. What’s wrong?”
“Are you wearing your scapular?”
“Yes. I’m fine.” And I am. In fact, I feel stronger in my new space as I look out my window at the extras being assembled in the open field. “I just had a meeting with Francis,” I say. It comes out so grown-up. “He’s giving me a big monologue he wants me to—”
“Cease—he’s up to something. I knew there was something wrong with him. His ego’s too big. He has to outdo everyone. He has to outdo the reality shows.”
“Nana. This is a drama and I’m a historic character—”
“I think he’s going to let you kill each other.”
“Nana, c’mon. Do you really think he’d let a bunch of teenagers—”
“Maybe that’s why he chose a bunch of unknowns, did you ever think of that? To a director like him, you’re all just—how do you say it, my precious, qu’on peut sacrifier.”
“Nana. I don’t think he would ever allow any of us to get hurt.” I think about Rex and his broken nose, but I dismiss it. Isn’t that why Francis came to visit me? Didn’t he say to make nice with Eve because he doesn’t want any more real violence on the set?
Her voice sounds shrill as she says, “Find out where you’ll be tomorrow. Keep your phone on. Keep it hidden in your—”
“Nana. I’m gonna be fine. I’ve got to go. I’m staying over. I think it’s time I have my space.”
“Be careful, my precious.” I hear a sob. “Cease, call her. She wants you to call her—please, my humble maid. Jeanne is the only one who can—”
I hang up. I feel a strange exhilaration, as if all this time I was hiding behind my character and now I’m free—no longer crouched in her shadow; a veil has been pulled back. I don’t believe I can talk to her like my Nana keeps insisting, but I feel as if she’s out there, somewhere…
On top my messy desk I find a scrap of paper with the reasons I want to be the last girl standing.
- To buy my Nana a cottage in the country—maybe even Provence.
- To make up for the things I said on the last night of James’ life…
I fish out a piece of paper from a stack of old reference material on the desk. I write out her name and feel like a little girl practicing her autograph.
Nana showed it to me after my first audition in a letter Jeanne had written to the British occupiers warning them to surrender. My hand relaxes as I practice the gentle slopes of the J and the A—I must’ve written it a hundred times before my final audition with Francis and the producers and with each stroke felt a little more confident, as if she were standing behind me gently, confidently guiding my hand. I don’t want to believe in God, Jeanne. Not after what he did to my brother. But I do believe in you… How did you learn to write at all? You were supposed to be illiterate.
I turn on my tablet, toggle the mouse. The screen goes blank and then opens on an inbox I’ve never seen before. It’s the address the studio had assigned me to get messages from fans, all the emails my publicist Joanie told me about but I’ve been too scared to read—fourteen-hundred messages, unopened—mostly from boys and girls who’d seen me in the trailers and must have thought they could confide in me. And they certainly have a lot of secrets to share:
- A girl in Spokane wants to know if she should go all the way with her boyfriend.
- A girl in Boston writes that her school is a lot like the battlefield in one of the future war zones I’d visited. All the jocks and the cool boys fight over the most popular girls in our school. At first, I felt glad to be popular. Now, I’m sick of it. When I saw your face, I knew you’d understand…
- A boy who’s just come out in Houston asks me if he should have sex on the first date.
- A twelve-year-old named Petit Fleur wants to know if her dog has a soul.
After a while, I do a search on how many of the emails contain the word “Love” (over seven hundred) and how many contain the word “Sex” (over a thousand). All these girls and boys from different parts of the world with the same simple question: What is love? I think about Rex, his crude manner and how he could have easily taken advantage of me. He probably bragged about his conquests online to his fans. I feel suddenly envious of Jeanne’s world, a world of fire and faith that didn’t allow pictures of naked teenagers to be displayed on the internet 24/7. Is there really a kind of love that goes way beyond sex? I think so. I’ve felt it. What secrets can I share about surviving the battlefield of love and sex? I grope for the right words.
Stay strong and wait for the right boy? But what the hell do I know…stop messing with the universe, Cease. Girls are supposed to be beautiful—boys are supposed to be like Rex.
I close my eyes. I feel the soft glow of light in the space I found in my free-fall, and remember the speech Francis showed me; I’ve got what it takes to be the last girl standing, so long as I give the right speech. I turn on my tablet.
Dear Petit Fleur,
I’m no authority but I bet your dog does have a soul. I know he/she loves you. Thank you for believing in me.
Cease de Menich
I wish I could write it in cursive so the little girl can see how good I’ve been getting at copying the autograph of my character. I pull the hood of my parka over my head, step out onto the snow-banked steps of my trailer and look up to the lead-sheathed sky as I walk to the caterer’s truck. I pass through a motley crew of extras being outfitted in mangy clothes; armed with swords and knives. They hover over a food table like mangy cattle. I pick up my shake and see Claude’s ordered me another soup. I eat the soup and take the shake back. I look down at my tablet on my desk.
Dear Cease de Menich,
Thank you for writing me. Thank you for believing in me. I’m a girl and I’m here to protect girls.
Hi Petit Fleur,
You sound so grown-up. Are you really just twelve years old? Is your real name Jeanne? What a coincidence.
Yes. But I’ve been a girl for a long time. I watched you grow up, in fact. I’m concerned that you still don’t know why you were chosen to play me. You’re not just any girl, Cease. You’re descended from a long line of strong girls. Your brother was trying to tell you this when he died.
I drop the shake and it hits my navy blue cashmere sweater on the bed. I study the email address, try to find the button to block it. This is why Nana has told me to stay off the internet. But I read on:
I know you’re scared. I was, too. Believe me, becoming a saint can be really scary—it’s a bit like getting a call from God the way you got a call from your agent and were told he’s got this part you need to play. I didn’t have a phone. It was just a bright light and a serious voice. I’d wake up on the battlefield some mornings and just want to run home to my parents. There were times I thought I was going crazy, because when God pulls back the veil on your personal life for the whole world to see, it’s pretty scary…but you can’t go back once you’re chosen for the role of a lifetime. You’ve got to go for it.
P.S. I didn’t think you’d read my messages if I told you my real name. But now you know.
P.P.S. Don’t be afraid to call me. I’ve been waiting to hear from you. And you’d better warn the others about just how real things are going to get.
I chuckle—it grows into a desperate, nervous laugh that rings off the corrugated ceiling. I wave my hand over my tablet as if I’m trying to swat a fly, dispel a myth. I laugh at the child-logic of those lines; how they should make me laugh because I know saints—at least the saints Nana told me about—don’t talk like that. Petit Fleur is just some crazy girl with some advice that suddenly makes a lot of sense. I look down at her name and it’s in cursive, identical to the real Jeanne’s signature. (She must have gotten that from the same biography.)
Well, at least I’m not the type of actress who gets voices in her head—now, I’m reading crazy things from fans, and that’s what they are, right? Fans.
OK, I admit it. I feel like some teary-eyed wannabe who can’t believe this so-called gift I’ve been given would really get me anywhere. You’re writing me. You believe in me, but you’re asking me questions I don’t have answers for. I try to dismiss the compliments. “You’ve got an earnest face, and look approachable—” That’s the kind of thing a loving mother says to her homely child. Nana says I’m beautiful, but I just can’t see it—it isn’t just my big nose. I think my chin’s pointy. You say my eyes are beautiful?? Not alongside Stephanie’s peepers. “You glow…” “Your whole face lights up when you look into a boy’s eyes…” “You’re not exactly beautiful,” the most honest of you writes, “but I can’t take my eyes off of you.”
Well, yeah, maybe. But there’s something I’ve got to tell all of you. This so-called gift I’ve inherited feels like a curse sometimes, and if I could share with you the reasons why, it’d be a great speech. It might not get me on the podium, but it sure would release this horrible bolt of grief. I turn off the tablet.
Don’t be afraid to call me.
How? I wonder what goes through my Nana’s head all those times she bows at that rickety pew in our living room. I know some of the things that went through my head all those times on the battlefield I bowed in prayer; rage—pure and simple, a big Fuck You to God for taking away the person who never got a chance in this world.
A knock on my door. It’s Bradley and he looks like something a girl would imagine was heaven-sent.
“I saw your light,” he said. “Would you like to come by for dinner in my trailer tonight?”
I give him a hug, and when I go to give him a peck on the cheek he turns—our lips meet. I feel that jolt from my thigh to my heart, again. I remember what Claude said about letting go of my anger and how Nana had warned me about boys and my challenges with intimacy. Nana’s being kind. I don’t just have a problem with intimacy—I have a problem with trust—as in, I don’t trust anyone, because when someone you love more than anyone else in the world dies, lines get drawn between you and all those other people you try to love just as much, but can’t. But I’m sick of fighting. I’m sick of trying to save the world. I really don’t know anything about lovemaking, except that Bradley Mann is in my trailer, we’re the same age, and he looks like he’d be a really good teacher.
“Sure. Why don’t I come by around seven?” He leans down for another peck on the cheek, and this time I turn and he doesn’t turn away. It’s a kiss that tells me there isn’t a secret I can’t share with him. Eve had bragged online about an off-screen romance with him, but I doubt it’s true. They’re a complete and total mismatch when it comes to chemistry. She’s a friend of the Van der Ebbs from the Upper East Side. He’s a straw-haired, cornfed Boy Scout from Iowa.
“See you tonight.”
I watch him walk down my steps and think how easy it might be to join him—just nix the red carpet and podium—and keep walking right off into the sunset.
Eve calls to Bradley as he makes his way back to his trailer. He stops and offers her a peck on the cheek and she looks over his shoulder at me and then makes one of her hallmark, despicable moves. Her hand moves from his waist to his butt and she gives me a look that says, you’re just like all those losers writing you online.
A few minutes later I’m in Francis’ trailer watching Eve approach. She carries a clipboard, walks the way Serena Van der Ebb walked up Madison Avenue, as if the whole world was to bow in her wake. Eve’s just a gatekeeper, I try to reassure myself, like all those people with clipboards outside the most exclusive parties in the city—the fashion shows, the fundraisers—all the events my brother wanted desperately to get admitted to, so much I swore that someday I’d be famous and I’d put his name on every single list of the entire city. Eve was Bendels and Bergdorf’s and the Metropolitan Club all rolled into one. I didn’t even need to squint to see that rich-bitch halo. I feel the bolt of grief tighten in my chest as she reaches my steps. It isn’t her money or her attitude that scares me. Her friends had outsmarted my brother, and I thought my brother was the smartest boy in the world.
Serena Van der Ebb was a pretty cruel queen bee. She and Phil decided to play a trick on James. Phil took James under his wing and announced to his posse that he was giving him a coming-out party. I’d never seen my brother so happy as when he came home that day after school, plopped himself down on his bed and said he was coming-out. I should’ve known better. It wasn’t the kind of coming-out either of us had expected. Phil invited him over to his place on Park Avenue and said he wanted him in his little club of boyfriends, only there was an initiation. James had to make out with another boy. Phil secretly taped the whole thing and sent it to his classmates at Dayton.
“Hello, Susan,” I say, figuring I won’t hate Eve so much if I call her by her character’s name.
“Sorry I’m late,” Susan says. “Wardrobe just can’t seem to get a size seven in my armor.” She looks like she was caught in a wardrobe time warp. A chain mail top paired with designer jeans. And those espadrilles my brother had told me to get a few days after he met Serena. I can still hear that ominous squeak they made across the parquet floors of the Van der Ebb duplex on Fifth Avenue.
“No worries. It looks like quite a scene,” I say. She takes a seat beside Francis’ desk, beneath a framed photo of him accepting a trophy. She has telltale pimples on her high cheekbones, a beauty mark, lips that look like they’ve been puffed up at her aesthetician’s office. “You look good in those jeans. Hugo Boss?” I try to sound pleasant, but Eve just lets out one of those rich-girl chortles as she looks down her nose at my latex yoga pants, my bean boots.
“Any who. I think we got off to a bad start. I’m sorry about what I said.”
I nod. “Well, all’s fair in love and war.”
“I was just trying to find my motivation. I mean we’re after the same boy. You’re a saint and I’m a bad girl; and let’s face it, girlfriend, one of us isn’t going to be here tomorrow.”
Maybe Francis isn’t such a genius after all. Who the hell decided to make Susan B. Anthony a bad girl?
Susan thrusts her chest forward. Those breasts stick through the chain mail like cannonballs.
What the hell did my brother see in people like you?
“And if I have to blow Brad to win, I will.” She picks up her script. “So let’s do this.” She reads in that dreadful monotone that assures me talent’s not doled out like money.
“You’re a witch,” Susan reads. “You deceive the knights with your manly dress. You’re not holy. You’re a little girl playing dress-up games. This knight needs a woman.”
“So be it,” I reply. “But only a girl can decipher the names on my sword.” I read aloud the notes. “Then I raise the sword and the crosses are displayed on a rock. We each have a speech. Bradley arrives and makes his choice. There’s nothing here about a fight, but all’s fair in love and war.”
“You allow me to inspect the sword,” Susan says.
“I don’t have that in my script.”
“Well. All’s fair,” Susan says and stands. She checks her hair in the mirror. She looks annoyed. “Funny. You think you could’ve learned your place by now, but I guess you’re perrrfect for this role.”
“Oh, I think you know,” she sings, tauntingly. “A little peasant girl trying to get herself noticed by the gods. Playing miss innocent who pretends to hear the voice of angels. But you have some dirty little secrets, too, don’t you little peasant girl.” Susan slowly twirls a blond flyaway as she stands. “You’re in way over your head.”
I say, “Funny. We look about the same height.” I’m actually a little taller than her, but I feel small, which means she’s getting under my skin. I want to wipe that smirk off her face with my fist. She props the script in the crook of her arm the same way Serena used to tote the big bottle of cranberry juice, as if she wanted to show the world she’d just come from another conquest.
I came home one night after rehearsal and found my brother crying on his bed. I’m not going to get into how he looked or how I reacted. But I need to tell you I was afraid and somehow that fear is important now. I was afraid because my brother had always been there for me, and seeing him lost was terrifying.
“Philip Van der Ebb. Serena’s brother? Phil. Funny, how small the world is—at least, at the top,” Susan says, as if on cue.
I freeze, take a deep breath. And then feel as if I’m falling again, watching the pulley come loose…I look at Susan—I’m supposed to be afraid, but I can feel that thumping again—and something else, as if all that pain and weirdness of my past made sense—or if not sense, at least—was there for a reason.
“Your brother fell in love with Phil. But he was way out of his league. And so are you.” Susan points at my chest with her forefinger.
“Are you saying I’m in love with you, Susan?” I turn to the photo of Francis on the wall. “Umm…might make a nice plot twist. Medieval lesbians? Francis would love to show that. But you’re just not my type.”
Susan hisses, turns to the door. “Just say your goodbyes to Bradley by the time we get to the Pine Barrens. He’s with me now, you little tramp.”
“I’m a virgin, not a tramp. Not that you’d remember far back enough to know the difference.” Susan storms out of the trailer but trips on the last step and does a face-plant into a bale of snow-dusted hay.
Dinner with Brad tonight is going to feel nice, I predict, as I watch Susan brush the hay from her designer jeans. I imagine the big payback factor—Susan watching me leave his trailer with a big smile on my face—but quickly dismiss it.
She’s a type. Let the best girl win. And that’s a really noble way of saying I can’t afford to repeat what happened between Serena and my brother.
I stretch my arms over my head and feel relief after reading the text that we have the next forty minutes off. I look at the mess on my bed and the clutter on the small desk in front of me. I close my eyes and picture Brad and me making a home, being in love, with something more than dialogue and props.
And then I feel the turn of the screw, that bolt of grief in my chest.
Falling in love with Brad off camera? No script? What if we really did get close? You can worry about real love later, Cease. You’ve got to find out what Brad knows about this next scene. If the writers of this story were inside my head, then chances are they were doing the same thing to Brad. I need to find out what he knows. Together we could guard each other’s weak spots. Isn’t that what real lovers do?
Find out what he knows. If Francis lands a big name—that Latin heartthrob that he’s rumored to be in talks with—then the probability of us making it to the final round are pretty slim. Francis’ll probably pair the new guy with Catherine the Great and they’ll destroy us in the final round.
I try to find a sexy outfit from the pile of clothes that I’d dumped on the bed. Maybe I’ll have a shot with the Latin heartthrob too? God, I wonder if Francis was talking to Marc Antony. I shrug, tug at my spandex, decide the cobalt turtleneck is too dramatic and settle for my teal T-shirt that doesn’t show too much cleavage, because if Brad’s into the high peaks he’d probably go for Eve. I put on the scapular not because I believe in any of this but because I’d made a promise to my Nana.
I study my eyebrows in the full-length mirror, the creases on my forehead that have grown deeper since filming began. I’ll never be able to love anyone unless I trust them first. And I think my Nana’s afraid to say what that really means—that when you trust and love someone that much, you don’t like others coming between you. You feel jealous and jilted and you want to lash out. That’s not love—that’s hunger, and that’s the only thing I feel right now when I try to get close to a boy. Before I turn away from the mirror, I remember Francis’ line, you know what happens to anyone who comes between you and your brother. He’s taunting me. He’s pulling back the veil on a secret that he intends to show the world.
I put on a pair of chinos. I’ll give him the not-too-girly preppie look and see if he likes it. Brad isn’t the brute Rex is, and I bet that soft side gets him as many emails from male admirers as the girls who probably drool over his perfect lips—and I’m just a boyish-girl who’s tired of saving the world and now just wants to fall in love.
“I’m making some pasta. The caterer told me you were vegetarian,” Brad says and flashes his best smile. He wears a black turtleneck and jeans with chocolate brown Birkenstocks.
“Yes. But I’m flexible. I ate a lot of meat on the set of Vampire Grrls.” Brad laughs.
Did I just say that? Cease, forget the food. Just insert your foot in your mouth.
“You’re turning a nice shade of scarlet.”
“I’m sorry. I guess I thought I’d just be able to rely on my lines.”
“No worries.” He gives me another peck on the cheek but also tugs at my belt loop in a playful way I really enjoy. We’re not supposed to be here together—finalists are not allowed to socialize—but after months of taking orders from grown-ups it feels good to break the rules. A small card table erected beside his bed holds a vase of lilacs. He’s spread a plastic, azure tablecloth and set out paper plates and plastic flatware and is lighting the candles with a box of wooden matches. The trailer feels like a doll’s house for teenagers trying to play adults.
Brad filled out all the questionnaires. Signed the releases that would allow them to probe into his past the same way they had done mine. I need to find out if they’ve pried into his personal life too. I need to find out if we can really trust each other, because that’s the only way we’re gonna beat the others to the podium.
“Sorry about the paper plates,” he says as he serves the pasta. “I didn’t have time to get anything else.” I have excellent table manners but am so hungry that I slurp down the first mouthful of angel-hair pasta he spreads the marinara on.
“What you think of Eve?” he asks and pours some grape juice that looks as dark as Nana’s burgundy.
“She’s a type,” I say, cautious.
Watch out, Cease. It sounds like he’s doing a little reconnaissance of his own. Eve is gone for the night and I’m relieved. I just don’t need any more sick drama.
“We know some of the same people on the Upper East Side,” I say.
“Funny, all these coincidences…” His voice trails off. “What do you think?”
“Yes. Funny,” I say, careful not to move too fast. “Have you noticed some of the things the writers have included that make it sound they know what’s going on in our real lives?”
“I’m glad you mentioned it,” Brad says, gathering the pasta from the bowl with a large fork. “I should have figured as much, what with all those questionnaires and interviews they did during the auditions.”
“Like all you have to do is play yourself.”
The sun has set, and in the candlelight his eyes appear almost indigo. My head swims as I look down at his hands, the delicate way he holds the plastic cup between his thumb and forefinger. I can’t believe such long, delicate fingers are attached to such strong, muscular wrists. I remember a crude story Serena told me about how a boy’s hands are clues to his experience and endowment in bed—but the memory disgusts me. What was it about those rich, entitled people that had turned my brother from the sweetest boy in the world to a crazy, reckless paranoid?
“I don’t want to talk about Eve—I mean, Susan. We have our roles. Let the best girl win,” I say and finally meet Brad’s eyes. He’s been up since before dawn and they still look as vibrant as those fresh-cut figs that are his lips. I try to picture him in three years. I brush my upper lip with my forefinger, as if I’m drawing a mustache with a cork.
“Why do you do that?”
“You touch your upper lip and then your whole face transforms. And then I see her. Your character—Jeanne looking like you’re gonna punch out Rex all over again. Do they teach shit like that at Juilliard?”
“Oh. Yes. That,” I say, and am about to make something up when his look stops me. “Why? Does it scare you?”
“No. I like your tough side. It makes me feel someone’s got my back.”
“Do you trust me, Brad?”
“Then it’s time we come clean. Your dialogue for this scene is a lot about your mother, isn’t it?”
He nods, once. “So?”
“Don’t you get it? They’re fucking with our heads. This reality show isn’t really about history or saving the world. They just want to turn us into a real pair of star-crossed lovers—a girl forced to talk about her fucked-up devotion to her brother, a boy forced to talk about his devotion to his mother.”
It was getting Greek in the worst way. I could see the hesitancy in his eyes…
“Brad, the things they ask you to confess about your relationship with your mom tomorrow are a little strange, aren’t they?” I put my hand on his thigh and continue slowly. “I’m not fucking with your head, Brad, and I didn’t bribe anyone to get that information. They’re doing the same with me. In my last scene with Rex, the writers included lines from my brother’s last letter. His suicide note.” Brad turns and gives me an ominous look. A look that tells me we aren’t a match—that at best, I’d be a steppingstone to Great Cate or Susan B.
“Our scene’s about two people who run through a forest and find Jeanne’s sword in the ruins of an abandoned church,” he says defiantly. “And that doesn’t sound like what you’re talking about at all.” He walks over to the sink and turns back to me.
“OK.” I pull back a bit. “What do you think this scene’s about?”
“I have to choose between you and Susan,” he says matter-of-factly. “We run through a forest and are attacked by the enemy. We reach a church where Susan is waiting, and there one of you finds the magic sword. Then you fight Susan and one of you is eliminated.” He shrugs, looks annoyed.
“Fine.” It looks like my first real date isn’t going well. I take a step toward him. “I’ll tell it to you straight, Brad, because I think we both know how Susan is going to play the scene with you. She’ll offer herself to you right there by the church. She’ll gladly take off her top for you. She’ll take you in her arms and go all the way, and I doubt Francis or anyone else on the set will stop her. After all, this is a stupid reality show—not Greek tragedy. And next to watching a boy like Rex get his nose bashed in by a virgin saint, can you imagine what kind of buzz our fan base will get watching a virgin—”
“I’m not a virgin.”
“Sure, Brad. And those breasts on Eve are real. C’mon.” I give his crotch a long look and fold my arms across my chest. “We both know why we were cast. We probably both admitted it at some point in all those prescreening interviews.” I look down. This may be our first fight so I’d better stop staring at his package, which looks, for some weird reason, really inviting right now. “Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? You won’t win that way. You won’t win by fucking Eve or even just rounding second base. You won’t win that way because all the girls and boys out there are going to vote, not just the pervs who like to watch kids lose it in reality shows—and the real fans want to see more than that.” I check to see if this is sinking in.
“Do you really think Francis is going to allow his show to be decided by a bunch of kids, like us?”
“Yes. I do.”
“It sounds like you’re the one who’s being naïve, Cease.” He comes over beside me, takes a seat in the wobbly, wicker chair.
“I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true,” I say. “Francis hates the studios. He always has. He would gladly have a bunch of fans decide this show than some bean-counting studio exec.”
Brad eyes me skeptically and I continue.
“The people who really want to know the difference between love and sex are going to be watching and then voting, and they won’t vote for you or Eve because they’ll be disturbed. Not freaked out. Because we both know that they’ve probably seen it all already.”
I watch a twitch flitter across Brad’s boyish face.
“Well, I do admit some of my lines are a little weird. I mean, I’m talking about my mom and thinking—”
“Do you say anything about having to protect your royal bloodline?”
“How do you know all this?”
“Brad. Don’t you get it? They just want to see you have sex with Eve. They want to look on with all the sick envy that gives these shows their wild popularity. And then after you’re done, Francis will bring in that star and have him shame us both for all our sins. Then, they’ll walk off into the sunset with that Stephanie and we’ll spend the rest of our careers labeled as the ones who got duped.”
“I don’t know. What about Eve?”
Brad tries to look sincere but I can read his whole inner monologue. No lovemaking. No portal. No red carpet. No future. I look at his hands and imagine them caressing Eve’s breasts, those long, gorgeous thumbs and forefingers nimbly undoing her bra. I fight the rage that I feel rise in my chest. I smell cheap perfume and then like a bubble rising from the murky depths of memory a name: Cherise.
“Your whole face lights up when you smile, Brad.” He turns from the sink. I watch his tongue dart across his lower lip. “Maybe I am being a little too naïve.” I take another step. I take his delicate fingers and place them on my hips. “But—who do you think your fans would rather see you with—a bad girl or another virgin?”
“Well,” he gives me a sheepish look. “I think you’ve got my back—”
We kiss. It isn’t the kind of kiss I’ve been trained to deliver in a love scene. I feel his hands find the small of my back… all the ways I’d rehearsed how to kiss a boy on camera suddenly feel strange. I think he’ll go for my zipper, tug the way Rex had, but unlike Rex, Brad is a real gentleman. His fingers linger on my belt loop but go no farther down. This made me even more excited. I start to unbutton my shirt. Isn’t this the way boys like it? To grab for your breasts and start sucking—but he stops me. He guides my hand to the back pocket of his jeans.
“If they want real love let’s give them real love, because that’s the way I’m feeling right now,” he says. I trace his bottom lip with my tongue as my thumb and forefinger tug on his turtleneck.
Slow down, Cease. He’s a boy, not your dinner. You’re a virgin saint, not a vampire. Falling in love feels like falling backward in time. Brad’s strong hands stopping the hours and gently pushing them back, making a space where I can see things clearly for the first time in my life.
I feel a lump rise in my throat. I pull back. “Brad. Susan’s a trick. She’ll try to seduce you the same way Rex tried to seduce me.”
Brad cocks his head, looks at me with the same incredulity he had when I told him about my past. His awe-shucks demeanor has been replaced in a flash by that of a cunning street fighter, a clever boy who is good at catching enemies off guard.
“My character has to grow,” Brad says, defensively.
“Just don’t be tricked.” I wish I could put that combustible elixir called chemistry back into its bottle. That’s what I’d felt with him—I take another breath, step back from our kiss—a chemistry that tastes like hunger, tastes like I could finally be satisfied after starving myself. I hold both his hands.
“Just ask yourself how you’re going to feel when Francis says cut and you find yourself naked for the entire world to see.” I give him a peck on the cheek. “Thanks for a great first date.”
Back in my trailer I open the email from Esme, the social worker. I’m glad I’m sitting down.
How are you doing? I’m concerned. Could you please call me. I need to talk to you and Nana about a police report regarding a missing person.
I feel the room begin to spin.
You know what happens to anyone who gets between you and your brother.
I smell the scent of cheap perfume again. No matter how hard I lock and bolt the doors against my memories, they still find a way in.
Cherise…That was her name, that smell; her perfume….
I lie down, close my eyes. This drama that’s supposed to be make-believe feels awfully real, and my real life feels like a bad dream. I wake to the sound of hail hammering the corrugated roof. I dream it was snowing and Brad was holding me in a virgin forest. Elves were spying on us and a beautiful damsel was waiting in the courtyard of a cottage. I look out the window to find the electronic billboard Francis posts in the center of the corralled trailers.
MOS MASTER SHOT—Jeanne and Susan, the electronic board says. It’s a master shot, which means there won’t be any sound, mostly just blocking. After a moment of flashing, it adds: Weather Delay. But all I can see through the dreamy haze is: only one of you will be progressing to the next round.
The snow looks pretty convincing. Francis should be happy about that. It’s almost midnight. The trucks rumble to life and I get a text that we’re headed to a new location. I’ve got to warn the others about how real things are going to get…Petit Fleur’s line is running in my head as I stuff my tablet and the scene into my backpack and get into the car.
“Where are we going, Yousef?”
“Top secret, Miss Cease.” Snow’s slanting through the yellowing lights on a turnpike.
“C’mon, Yousef. How can you keep the location of ten trucks and a hundred people secret?” We drive on. I’m fine.
But I’m not fine. This scene isn’t going to end with me being held by Brad in a forest filled with dwarfs and love birds.
An hour later the snow has stopped and I can see a sliver of the moon through the dense forest. The Pine Barrens? Maybe, but as we snake our way down a gravel drive to where the road bottoms out I can’t see any sign of civilization. Francis wants it real. The Middle Ages. No light but the moon and the fires that are already going as we corral with the other trucks. I can see the fightmaster with an assistant, but the paramedics that usually attend every fight scene are missing. I look out beyond the circle of trailers to find the ambulance that always accompanies us. It’s gone, too.
I come out of makeup wearing my armor and stand in a clearing beside the edge of a forest visible only through the moonlit haze. The fightmaster hands me my broadsword.
“Cease. Francis wants to see the sparks fly on the master shot, so be careful. This is as real as real can get. I’ve sharpened it.” And then he grabs my wrist and pulls it toward his face.
“Cease, wake up,” he shouts. “You could easily take off a man’s arm with this sword. Remember—you’ll only be raising it over your head and then we’ll switch to the replicas.” I take it. My hand grows warm in the sword’s handle. I switch hands and there’s no denying the warmth. I hold the sword overhead as Eve approaches from a rock in a clearing. I feel what I’ve felt so many times as I advanced over the battlefields; the rage—all that mindless punching and kicking that got me through the first rounds. But then I take a deep breath and see, in a glimpse as fleeting as a brilliant shaft of light on the blade, a real forest, real snow, and real fighters with crossbows and armor. Real wounds.
So this is what it really looked like…and I am there; at least, it feels like I am.
I gaze down at the hilt that glistens and understand the simple message I’d gotten in my free-fall.
My life isn’t an accident…all the bad things that happened to me, happened for a reason. The clouds didn’t part and the hand of God didn’t appear, but someone was there—a hand pulling back a veil on my personal life and all the hurt of my past suddenly made sense.
I’m going to win. I’m going to be the last girl standing.
“Nice sword,” Eve says. “Maybe someone should teach you how to use it.”
I step toward her. She lifts the broadsword overhead and makes a slow arc a few inches from my face; she’s a lefty but leads with her right foot, so she’s probably pretty well-balanced, but when she raises her right hand I can see she’s weak on the right side, and I’ve got a quick left jab. I lower the sword and feel the same strange warmth but not in my hands, it’s in my chest now and growing, radiating outward to my arms.
I can beat you but I don’t have to become you to do it…
Francis orders all the electricity turned off. The generators are shut down and we stand helpless in the clearing as more torches are lighted and placed on the perimeter by the crew. He’s crouched down behind the camera as a grip slowly pushes him on a trolley. A band of extras leads Susan and me through the darkness.
Francis tells me to lie on the ground. I hesitate but don’t dare disobey. Eve holds the tip of the sword a few inches from my face and I wonder if I will get the same opportunity or if Francis has already made up his mind about me. Maybe I’m too much of a risk…too much of a drama queen to survive the next round. He hasn’t yelled cut but I think the shot is over because the camera has panned away from us. Then I feel Eve’s boot come down on my ankle.
I let out a yell and try to rise. She jabs my chest with the hilt of the sword. I fall back and hit my head on a rock.
“Oh. Sorry. I must have slipped.”
“You fucking bitch,” I hiss. “I’m going to kill you.”
You’re becoming her, Cease. Not a good idea.
“That’s enough!” Francis shouts. “You’re supposed to be professionals.”
One of the techies helps me up. Molly runs back to a trailer to fetch me an icepack. Eve backs away when she sees the look on my face.
“Take it easy, sister. It was just an accident.”
I stare her down. She’s got a defiant, wild look, but her pumped-up lips tremble and that tells me she’s probably on drugs. I step back. I know how Francis wants this scene to end—with real blood on real snow. I close my eyes, feel the weight of the real sword the fightmaster’s given me. I will fight Eve. One of us will die, and if I kill her Francis will probably offer up some made-up story from my past as justification that I’m crazy and have a history of violence. I’m not going to do it. I’ll defend myself—I know Eve’s weak spots…but as I look down at my armored boots I can feel the rage rise in my chest. I’m not letting some rich bitch take my love interest away. Art imitates life only so much. I’m putting my foot down. Phil and Serena helped destroy my brother. Their kind isn’t going to destroy me.
“There must be some mistake. This isn’t the scene Francis showed me—” but before I can finish, the production assistant—a tall redhead whose skin looks yellow from a bronzer—shrugs and pushes a clipboard in my face. Something for me to sign. I look down at the two cardinal rules all the actors have been required to obey since the first day on the set.
Actors may only improvise AFTER reciting all their required lines.
Any actor who willfully stops a scene will automatically be disqualified.
“I already signed this.”
But all I get is another shrug as she says, “It’s required.” The last rule has been circled in pen and she points to a small box after “disqualified” that I’m supposed to initial.
“Listen to me!” I shout. “I want you to get Francis, tell him I need to speak with him. This isn’t my speech—I mean, this isn’t the speech Francis showed—”
But I can tell from her shrug she’s got no idea what I’m talking about. She walks away, kicks snow off a war chest filled with battle-axes, and makes her way toward Francis, who’s sitting on a crane being pushed by a huddle of men like some medieval weapon of war. I look back down at the words. It’s not a victory speech—it’s a confession.
I close the door, hobble back to my chair, put the ice pack back on my ankle. The snow has stopped and the midwinter light casts long, pristine shadows across the white expanse. A glaring half-moon hangs over the darkness like a crude anvil. I fish through a yellow bag beside my desk for the raw almonds Nana told me to eat between takes. I munch, still troubled by what I am reading. I can’t call Nana. My watch says 4:30 a.m. A lark sings over the muffled thuds of extras practicing swordplay in the clearing. I look back down at my scene.
Jeanne d’Arc. You will fend off attackers with Brad as you make your way through the forest. You will compete with Susan to find the sword that’s hidden near the church. Whoever finds it first will give it to Brad and be allowed first choice of weapons in your final battle.
Only one of you will move on to the next round.
I can feel the emotions rise in my chest; jealousy, betrayal—things that saints aren’t supposed to feel, but I remember Nana’s advice and remind myself I got this part because I played Jeanne as a real person, as a lost, frightened girl I know all too well. I glance down at a line I have after I confront Susan near the church.
“I think you should know, Susan, what I did to the last girl who stood between me and the boy I loved.”
I hear another muffled thud and think it’s come from outside my trailer, but when I look up to my small bookshelf I see one of Jeanne’s histories has mysteriously fallen to the floor. I go over to retrieve it and find the pages open to the testimony of her trial. The clergy is interrogating her on the sword Jeanne found in the ruins of a church. History, that crazy hodgepodge of names and dates, was right here before me, and there’s something in these pages where I might find a clue to survive. Francis is strange, maybe even sick, but when it comes to the historical accuracy of my character he’s always been accurate.
Jeanne d’Arc’s sword was never recovered but its provenance was verified by one of the witnesses who testified twenty years after her death. According to legend, Saint Catherine the arch-angel came to Jeanne and told her to go in search of a sword that lay inside a church in Fierbois that was her namesake—so went the history that I dismissed as stupid until Nana handed me these transcripts. Jeanne had asked a solider in the town of Tours to get it based upon directions she’d given him from a dream. He’d found it buried behind the altar of the church, in the exact place she’d been told to look—he testified to all this when the time came to clear Jeanne’s name after her death. Why would he make that up? He’d never been to that town before in his life. Saint Catherine informed Jeanne it had once belonged to the grandson of Charlemagne.
The judges at her trial had interrogated her about the sword. Historians had written about it. Five crosses had been etched on the blade beside the hilt—but no words, so the writers were just having their fun, probably trying to cross genres and turn this story into some kind of sci-fi fantasy.
I look out the window to see the torch-lit faces—small armies are filing down through the path into the darkness of the trees. An assistant with a torch holds three fingers to the blazing light, and that means three minutes. My ankle hurts but Molly’s wrapped it up and I’ve got most of my armor on. I watch Eve swing, harder and harder, through the moonlight creeping up over the pillared darkness.
I can defend myself. I don’t have to hurt anyone. If Eve really wants to win, she’ll have to kill me.
I run through the scenarios like an endless sea of numbers that just need to find the right equation. Susan will reach the sword first and attack me. I’ll disarm her and win. Brad will try to betray me with a few choice tidbits about my past that will make me feel as lost as I did in Manny’s studio…or when I first saw my brother’s lines in the script. But I’ll recover and challenge him; kiss him—round second base if necessary—until he sees that all those lost, lonely viewers back home would rather see him with a virgin than some crazy girl who can’t really act. But it doesn’t matter. Francis showed me my speech. It’s a victory speech as in I will be the last girl standing. Or at least, I get to go up against Catherine the Great in the final round. Even if I lose to her, I’ll come out on top. The runners-up almost always do as well or better in these shows.
I clench my teeth as I look out the window to the low tendrils of fog that lurk in the dense forest. My dream of holding Brad alongside tweeting birds and happy elves is Snow White…
Wake up, Cease. You’re going to kill or be killed… They won’t be elves, Cease. They’ll be real. With real weapons and real violence…Nana was right.
Francis smiles as he dips his head down to the viewfinder of the main camera attached to a giant crane. In the distance sit the ruins of a church and an ancient graveyard—old tombstones jutting out in long, crooked shadows like teeth in a skull. Francis looks like a wrathful God hovering overhead.
All that blood over virgin snow.
I close my eyes and feel the past close in like an approaching storm. I adjust my armor. Another knock on my door, and it’s about time.
“Where the hell do you get off switching my…” but it’s not Francis. It’s a tall man with thinning blond hair, glasses, and a black, down parka, belted at the waist.
The man steps forward and says, “Miss de Menich, I have to confiscate all your electronic devices.”
“We’ve had a problem with the plot being leaked. Francis is putting the entire set on lockdown.” He flexes his jaw as he says lockdown.
I look down at the phone in my hand. I know I dismissed Nana’s advice to keep it on me, but I must’ve picked it up on my way out of the trailer. I hand it over and say, “Tell Francis I’m waiting to hear…” but the man stares me down.
“You were also seen with a tablet computer. I need you to turn that in.”
“I must’ve left that at home.” I steal a glance at the pile of clothes on the bed. He reaches into his parka and pulls out a phone. He presses numbers into it and a soft jingle can be heard coming from beneath the heap on my bed.
“Maybe I did leave it…” I look down beneath my desk but he’s already looking suspiciously at the pile of clothes.
A message splashes across the tablet’s face as I slowly pull it from a pile of jeans and underwear. It’s from Petit Fleur…CEASE BE CAREFUL. IT’S A…
“I should really turn it off fir—”
He grabs it from my hand, rushes out, and closes the door behind him.
I walk out into the clearing. The fightmaster approaches, holds out the handle of a ten-inch dagger, and when I search for the button all stunt knives have to collapse the blade on impact I find none.
“It’s real, Cease—and so are these.” He holds up the darts for my crossbow to strap across my chest. “You’ll be going hand-to-hand in the fight scene with Eve, so be sure to use these only in the forest to fend off the attackers.”
“Aren’t we going to rehearse? I mean…you always do blocking on hand-to—”
He just turns and walks away. The assistant in the clearing holds up two fingers—two minutes until we go. I watch Brad adjusting his scabbard as the fightmaster hands him a sword—he smiles and I can tell he doesn’t have a clue as to what’s about to happen. Susan approaches, puts her arm around his neck and plays with his ear with her thumb and forefinger as I adjust my crossbow and armor. I look down at my confession and think about all those girls and boys who wrote me emails; all the anxious faces that looked up to me from Manny’s studio. In the speech I’ve been given I’m confessing to Brad why I’ve got to kill Susan. So this confession is necessary for me to be the last girl standing. At least, that’s one possible scenario. But there are others. I bet Susan’s been given a speech, too—maybe one where she confesses to Brad why she had to kill me. My Nana’s right. We are expendable, and if I kill either Susan or Brad, Francis won’t be charged with a crime. He’ll just tell the press and the police that I had a history of violence and killed in real life. I try to see Eve as Susan, a character thrown into a silly drama, but I can’t.
All I have to do is kill a girl I never really liked; a girl who knew the family that destroyed my brother.
I close my eyes and let the scene play out in my head. If Francis wants real, I’ll give him real…
“Whoa,” says Brad. He steps aside as I approach the fire he and Susan are warming their hands over. “If looks could kill—you look like you did just before you gave Rex that lesson in how to treat a lady.”
“Just wait until you see what I’ll do to get a kiss from the right boy,” I say.
Susan lets out one of her rich-bitch chortles, and I can tell by her dilated pupils her co-star for this scene is going to be Mademoiselle Cocaine. I don’t let it freak me out. She’s reckless. I’ll stay focused. I close my eyes, try to see myself in a churchyard holding the mysterious broadsword—it didn’t have any magical power. It wasn’t going to save me from Eve’s clutches. If she gets to it before I do, she’ll just start swinging until I go down.
Down as in out, Cease. Real blood all over that real snow. Enough real to give Francis wet dreams for the rest of his life.
I can see dark shadows of an army move through the trees in the moonlight as the crew crouches down. The assistant holds a single finger up to the moonlit sky as I put my hand to my neck and realize I’ve forgotten the scapular. I need it. I don’t know why. I just do. I grab a torch from one of the extras and race through the clearing, pull at my trailer door and find it’s locked. From the shadows the blond man emerges.
“Why’s my trailer locked? I’ve got to get something,” I plead.
“I’m sorry, Miss de Menich. It’s just too much of a risk.”
“That’s a really stupid line. Did Francis give you that line?” I leap off the steps and face him, ready to take a few swings, but then he undoes the belt on his down parka and I see the gun. It’s real. As real as my sword and dagger—the weapons the fightmaster warned me about. I grab the dagger. He takes a step toward me. I turn and run to find my mark beside Brad.
My head’s spinning with the endless scenarios…I will wound Susan and then kill her, before I confess. Brad will betray me and stab me in the back. Susan will wound me and tie me up; I’ll be forced to watch her have sex with Brad and then she’ll kill me.
A deep breath, and then I feel the bolt of grief loosen in my chest. It feels as if someone’s standing behind me, working one of those wrought-iron instruments of torture Jeanne was forced to endure. But instead of turning the screws she was loosening them. Another breath, deeper…I close my eyes and see the space I found in my free fall—as if I’ve suddenly found a clearing in the whirlwind of all this hate. I feel the exhilaration rising in my chest. All that pain behind the door to my past that had closed the day my agent called to say I’d been chosen to play you, Jeanne—all that pain had been there for a reason, and the door that now lay open before me led to secrets that I had to share with the world. Secrets about a gift I’d not just been born with but inherited.
I touch my fingers to my upper lip and feel myself transform. Brad crouches low behind a rock, and I join him as the assistant director begins the final countdown.
I was chosen to play you, Jeanne. I don’t know why. But whether I live or die I’m meant to be here…I’m meant to share your charisma with the world.
A branch snaps and I spin around.
“Brad? Where are they?”
He shakes his head. “Waiting.”
We crunch through the fresh snow into the darkness, down a path to where the trail bottoms out into a dry creek bed. A pair of hands rises from behind a rock, an arrow streaks past us. It sticks in the trunk of a birch a foot over my head.
I pull the out the arrow, hear a thud, and turn to see an enormous man lope across the creek bed. He’s real flesh and blood and huge; a giant with a giant lope. He raises a rock in a sling and swings it in a slow arc around his head.
“We need to get back in the forest!” I shout. But it’s too late. A mangy hoard of fighters rises from behind trees with crude swords.
“Brad. Duck.” A rock whizzes over his head. Another hits me in the face.
Stay in character. I try to assure myself. Jeanne is by my side.
I have one shot before the giant reaches me and then it’s game over. I fall back. I rise, step back, but my weak ankle gives way. I lay helpless at the giant’s feet. I raise my crossbow. Grope for a dart. It grabs the bow in its huge hands and snaps it in half. I grab for my dagger—grasp the handle, but keep it beneath the fold of my armor.
The giant pins me down on an ice patch with a club and grabs Brad by the neck.
“Help me…Jeanne,” Brad cries. He looks down at me, helpless, as the giant tosses him into a thicket like a paper doll.
I see my chance. I thrust the dagger into the giant’s thigh. He staggers back and falls across the creek bed. He gropes for the handle as I turn and run to Brad. He’s in a heap beside the boulder; unconscious—then his eyes flutter open. I see the fear and think he’s going to scream. I press my mouth into his ear and say, “Brad. It’s OK. It’s real. We can’t stop.” He gives me a short nod.
I look down the creek bed to the steeple of a church rising through a field of pine trees. Brad tries to rise, falls back, and I thrust my head into his armpit and put his arm round my neck. There’s a gash in his thigh. I drag him forward, but it’s too late—the peasants have surrounded us and one points a broadsword directly at my throat. They march us down a hill to where Susan waits in a churchyard cemetery.
“What was once yours is now mine,” Susan says after I lay Brad beside a crooked tombstone. I reach down to brush the flyaway hair from his face.
He’s trying to say his line but can manage only a whisper. “I was told to betray you but I just can’t—”
I place my mouth to his ear but one of the captors grabs me by the neck and pulls me back up to face Susan.
I look to the sacristy of the chapel, an open hole in the roof. I know where the sword is. Francis might be strange, but he’s historically accurate. The sword is behind the sacristy, in the same place the real Jeanne told a solider to search for it…I’m going to find it, and then Woe is you, Miss Anthony.
Susan gropes Brad’s wounded thigh as I’m pulled back. I study the bruise on his face from where he’d hit the rock. I can feel the cameras close in on his open gash.
“Brad. She doesn’t love you. She wants to control you.” My captor lets me go. “Bradley?”
“What does that mean?” he asks, anxiously pulling himself away from Susan. He stands. Susan tries to pull him back to the rock but Brad pushes her away. “What does that mean?”
“She’s a witch,” says Susan. “Don’t listen to her.” She pulls him back and tries to wrap her arms around his thigh, but Brad pulls himself away.
I take a step toward Susan. She winds up with a roundhouse, swings. I duck. Try to head-butt her in the chest, but she turns, and I hit her in the armpit. I race to the sacristy. My ankle gives way on the steps and I do a face-plant on the heavy wooden door that hangs open. Susan lets out a sick laugh. I drag myself up and crawl across through the ruins of broken tile and brick to the dais. I grope through the cold earth for the handle. I can hear the crunch of boots from behind. I feel it, the hilt, and then that familiar jolt of warmth through my chest as I wrap my fingers…
Susan’s boot comes down on my wrist, the crunch of bone on a frozen plank. She pries the sword from my fingers. In the cold silence I turn, see the camera in the hole above the sacristy, wonder what all the boys and girls watching are thinking.
“Stand up, you witch. I want you to see Brad and I together before I finish you off.” I feel the tip of the sword prod, then pierce my armor. Susan steps back as I stand up, slowly, and hobble outside.
Brad pulls himself up. There’s a lot of blood coming from his nose and mouth as he says, “We all know the rules. I will kiss each of you before making my choice.”
Susan puckers her lips, but Brad turns from her and faces me, dips down and kisses me. I let him gently press and just as gently I pull away. Then I press my lips hard into his and let him take me. I gentle his wounds as he slowly lifts me; I prop his wounded leg up with my unwounded foot. Susan shakes her head violently.
Brad steps back and lets out a long sigh. He falls backward, tries to stand on his wounded leg, but can’t. Susan lunges forward to hold him up. She kisses him but he slumps in her arms, and it looks like she’s trying to smother him. Brad looks embarrassed. He pulls away. Susan looks enraged and I know what comes next as her head turns. She spins and swings the broadsword a wide arc to my neck. I duck and swing my right elbow into her face, grab her wrist, twist, and the sword falls to the ground. I grab it, take a single step backward. I raise the sword.
First, I’m gonna chop off those rich-bitch feet and let you hop around on your aristocratic ankles. Then I’m gonna put my fist in your face so hard.
I hear a voice—not the booming omniscience of Francis on the loudspeaker from atop his crane, but the voice of a girl.
Stand your ground, but offer no resistance.
Just what the hell am I supposed to use? Foul language? In case you haven’t noticed, miss whoever-you-are, I’m about to get cut to bits.
I lift the sword overhead and plunge it into the soft snow beside a broken tombstone. Susan draws her dagger. She swings at my face. I duck. I take out my dagger. Hold it up to the sky. I throw it down between her feet. I’m not going to stop this scene. I will not be disqualified for stopping this scene. I’m just going to show the world what she’s really about. She swings at my stomach with the dagger. I grab her forearm with both my hands and thrust my knee into her wrist. That dagger falls to the snow. I kick it away. Susan winds up and punches me right in the face. I go back on one foot. Another punch. I go down on one knee.
“Why aren’t you fighting, you stupid witch.” And then I know I’ve made the right choice.
“Love isn’t a grudge match, Miss Anthony. I love Bradley. He loves me. Now step aside and let us save the world.”
“You don’t know what love is, you stupid witch.” Susan spins around and takes Brad by the shoulders. She kisses him on the lips. She places one of his hands on her hip, smashes her breasts into his chest until he lets out a yell and grabs his wounded thigh.
“Doesn’t look like your kind of love is working, Miss Anthony—I guess you know what happens to anyone who comes between me and the boy I love.”
“Shut up.” She swings low and hits me right in the stomach. She turns to Brad. “Oh, I can make you feel better. I can make all the pain go away, my prince.”
It’s time for my confession, but before I can begin, Susan takes off her top—pulls off the chest-plate so quickly I figure she must’ve spent all morning practicing that move. Brad tries not to look at her breasts but he can’t resist. They kiss. She takes his hand in hers and slowly draws it into her chest. He pulls back. I don’t know if he has a line or if he’s just coming up for air.
Do it, Brad. Tell her she’s not the one for you.
“That’s not the kind of love that will save this world,” I say. Susan spins around and punches me in the face, a roundhouse. As I go down, I see her outstretched arm and bare breasts and think she might as well be plastered onto the prow of some ship. Then she kicks me in the head.
The crane lowers. Francis climbs out from behind the camera and says, “Thanks for all your hard work, Cease.” I pull myself up, dazed.
Cease? But I’m Jeanne. I’m going to be a…
“Good luck with your career, Cease. I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”
“That’s it? What about my speech?”
“I’m sorry, Cease. You’ve been eliminated.”
No. NO. You can’t.
My ears buzz. I feel as if the elastic safety cable that had saved me yesterday had suddenly snapped and I am about to hit the ground doing about seventy-five miles an hour. So much for nonviolence. So much for a virgin girl teaching the boys how to make love. I turn to Francis, who is already instructing the crew to pack up. I look to Brad and he moves to put his hand on my shoulder, but I give him a look that says: touch me and I will kill you.
Francis can’t look at me as I pass him. “I hope you enjoy your little game, mistah genius,” I mutter as I spit blood down to his feet. “We’re oooonn to yaaahah,” I add, but it comes out funny because I’m choking on the prosthetics that have come loose in my mouth.
What the hell just happened? I look up to the black sky, plead for an answer. I swat at my ears—that’s how loud and real the buzzing sounds. I’d only heard it this loud two times in my life; when I went to see a production of a rock opera on Broadway, and the morning I found my brother hanging in the closet.
The tall man in the black parka is waiting for me just where I left him beside my trailer steps. He hands me my phone and my tablet. I clear out my trailer and stuff into the trunk of the car the extra comforter Nana had insisted I take. Yousef waits by the wheel. I look anxiously at the empty seat beside me as he starts the engine—as if I were leaving someone behind.
Jeanne? Is this the way it was supposed to turn out? I wish I’d been killed.
Thank you for watching me. Thank you for believing in me. If you’ve seen the updates on WebTV, you know I’ve been eliminated from the reality-drama directed by Francis MacDonald. I feel like I’ve let you down. I wanted to be the last girl standing. I wanted to give you a big speech about how becoming a woman isn’t just about losing your virginity; it’s about standing up to the things you’re afraid of. I think that’s what Jeanne d’Arc would’ve said had she landed in our time. I think this is what my character was trying to get me to see—but in an instant I made a choice (a choice I still don’t understand because it came from someplace outside myself), and now I’m just a girl with all the same questions about love and sex that you’ve got.
But I have learned some things about fame that I want you all to know…and not just fame but that so-called gift called Charisma that gets a wannabe noticed, a gift that many of you told me I had. Charisma…the “it” factor…star power…that certain something—If you’ve got the presence everyone wants so badly these days I’m happy for you, but I want you to know something I learned the hard way. No matter what you’ve got, it takes another person to help you nurture it—a boyfriend, a brother, your father, your lover, a mother or sister, a co-star or scene partner. And if you’ve got one of those special people as I had—all I can tell you is watch out…What you have—what they’ll help you create, will feel like love, and like me, you’ll feel like a girl who’s just experienced her first kiss and wants more. But please take this advice before you dig deeper, before you ask for more—I’ll call it the second rule of Chemistry. Charisma isn’t love. Charisma is what you use to get you noticed. Charismatic is what you are when you play a role, and actors like me aren’t the only people who forget that.
I think we’re all actors, because most of us wind up playing other people in real life. We try to be good. We try to be real. But that real part of us isn’t always good, so we try to become someone else—a character we admire—a hero—someone who reminds us of our father, or a saint. We play our part, then return home to be who we really are. It’s all just a game. This truth we try to live is really just a lie, a lie that makes sense when we look up to the silver screen in a darkened theater.
I thought love was charisma. I thought love was about being popular, being accepted—and I can tell from some of your questions that you feel the same way—but it’s not. Being charismatic may make you feel popular. But it isn’t love. Because if you really want to love someone, you must cross a line—you must give up a piece of yourself, and when you do that you’re not the same person anymore. There are some lines that should never be crossed; that bad boy at school who knows just what to say to get you into his car; the queen bee who’ll let you join her club so long as you perform the initiation; these lines should be avoided, no matter how popular you want to become.
For those of you who’ll be watching me lose tonight, there’s something about fame I think you should know. Once you get a taste of it, you’ll want more. You’ll say you can control it. But you’ve no idea what you’re getting into…What you think is a gift may be a curse. I know that sounds like some line an actress would say. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the heartache and joy I’ve felt since becoming Jeanne it’s this: Curses are real. They don’t come from vampires or werewolves or some dark, distant planet. I think people make movies about those things because they’re afraid to face where curses really come from. Curses can come from your own family and all the secrets families hide for generations—their taboo bonds…stuff that you thought you could only see in a vampire film.
But I think I now see something I couldn’t when all I wanted was fame. There aren’t just lines between people; there are lines connecting people, too. People at your school you never thought you’d like until you say hello; people in your past you find helped you in some strange way; even strong, rich, famous people you find you’re related to. These lines are precious opportunities for you to follow, for you to grow. I’ve been following some of these lines and found out who I really am— but I also crossed one line I thought was for love but wasn’t. No matter how far you run, you wind up turning around and seeing you’ve come to the exact place all the soothsayers told you to avoid. Life can suck when that happens; it can make you think your life’s worthless.
I should probably write—just to sound precocious—that life’s just a passing shadow, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But I’m beginning to think there might be someone out there directing the big picture—and whoever this may be they’re a lot more important than some director with a big ego. (And, I don’t think this tale is being told by an idiot. I still believe I’m a pretty reliable narrator.) I played a strong girl in this so-called reality-drama; a girl who gave a confession before she was put to death—what’s called an auto-da-fe. I don’t know why my character did this, because she had nothing to confess. But I have a lot to confess and will never be free of this curse until I do.
Thank you for believing in me.
Cease de Menich
“You look different, Miss de Menich. Grown-up—all of the sudden,” Yousef says, after I catch his worried look in the rearview mirror. Blood from my split lip’s dripping on my keyboard as we approach the Lincoln Tunnel. I close the keyboard and try to sleep. Why did I refuse to fight Susan? Why did my character tell me not to go there? How did Brad and I survive? The weapons were real—we could’ve been killed…
A doorman I’ve never seen before is on duty as I stumble through the lobby. My hands are shaking so much I can’t make the key turn in the lock. Nana opens the door and lets out a cry.
“Oh, mon dieu.”
“Eve attacked me. My character told me not to fight back.” Nana cocks her head as if I’d made the wrong choice.
“What? Would you rather I fucked Brad for the entire world to see?” I sink into the couch next to her as she rummages through the freezer for the ice. I don’t start remembering until I feel her hands kneading my shoulders. Then I start to cry, long sobs that don’t stop until she puts me in the bath. I bury my forehead against my knees. I feel my ribs ache with the unending sobs. I weep until I feel the loofah on my back. Nana’s by my side; she’s always been by my side after every disaster, with her brownies and faith.
“The director’s an imbecile,” she mutters. She kisses me on the head and makes slow circles on my aching back. A single drop of water rolls down my long, white thigh. I take her hand from my shoulder and hold it in my pruney fingers. She gives me an anxious, helpless look that says she wishes the phone would ring and I’d get another early-morning call to be on the set; another knock on the door would bring a new scene with the promise of me being the last girl standing—because we both know no matter how stupid this reality show was, it kept us from the secrets we’ve been running away from since my brother’s funeral. I put a washcloth on my face and remember eavesdropping on Nana in her old apartment uptown… the hushed whispers, my ears burning, my head pressed against the heating grate—listening to James and Nana talk about what he’d found in those genealogies—this so-called gift that I’d inherited. James was my best friend in the whole world. What secret was so dark he couldn’t share it with me? Make-believe is all we have to keep us from the secrets of our past.
“Esme called again,” Nana says. A jolt in my chest shoots through all my wounds. I let out a cry. I remember the email I got from Esme and how I tried to dismiss it as something a character in a drama might write. But Esme’s not a character from the past or future. Esme’s a social worker who wrote me about that missing girl. Tight bun. Metal clipboard. Nana pulls the belt of her robe in that worried-sick way and fishes in her quilted pocket for a cough drop.
“She sent me an email about some girl who’s missing,” I say. I reach back and grab the loofah and wait for her to come around and face me. I pull the plug, feel the fateful tug as the water drains. I look down at my feet and wish all those time-travel portals Francis had created were real and Nana and I could go back to that cottage she’d rented in Narragansett. She could arrange the old furniture and we’d be a theatrical family again; there’d be no talk of fame or the bright lights of the city.
I let out a long sigh and say, “She was supposed to be a boy.”
“That girl who’s missing. Her name was Cherise. She was a stupid, little tramp James brought home one night when you were at one of your church meetings.” Nana takes a wobbly step backward.
“Nana. We didn’t do anything to that girl. It was just a game.”
“Cease and Desist,” she cries—and turns back to the mirror.
“Nana. It was just a game. A theater game. It made me feel—” I don’t know what else to tell her but the truth; playing the game with James made me feel like a star.
“NO. It wasn’t,” she shouts. “I watched what it did to you. It made you strong but—it made you mean, too.” Her mouth drops open. “It didn’t just make you want to be like him. It made you want to be him, and you got angry when you saw you were going to lose him.”
She wipes the vanity mirror with the sleeve of her robe. “That’s why you have to tell me what happened to this girl. We have to get our story straight, young lady. You were playing the game…maybe James decided to change the rules a little…this girl made you angry—” Nana takes a sudden step toward the tub and nearly loses her balance. I try to rise, but can’t. “We have to get our story straight,” she says as she grabs the rim of the tub. “I can’t afford to lose you. You’re all I have left.” She sobs. Seeing the hurt on her face makes me wish I’d been killed today. I desperately search for a way to change the conversation.
“Is that the way God works?” I ask. I’m trying to understand the look on Francis’ face when he said goodbye—it was as if God was already on the lookout for a better cut of meat. “I bet Jeanne wasn’t even a virgin, anyway,” I say defiantly, trying to change the subject—as if a fight would be better than having to confess the real story of how we played the game. “I feel Brad and I are ready to make love,” I say in my sophisticated Serena voice, “but it looks like he dumped me for a girl with more experience. I guess that’s the way boys work. I was hoping for a big beaver logjam on the set because that’s what most people want to see. Not this stupid search for pure love that doesn’t even exist. At least, not in our world—maybe in hers.”
“No. That’s only the way Hollywood works. First they want you to become a boy, next they want you to grow a dick.”
I just can’t laugh at that line again. The ringing in my ears is gone, but that bolt of grief feels as if it’s spreading an infection. I put a rag around my swollen ankle.
I look down at my feet and decide this is a good place to confess—here, in this old tub Nana took with her when we moved down from East End Avenue, the tub with its Sphinx-like claws—naked, nursing my wounds, because we in the House of de Menich keep our darkest secrets hidden in plain sight. I take another long breath and try to think of a way to begin…
“Hey Nana, do you know why vampires need blood? Why they’re so popular with teenagers?”
She shakes her head.
“Well, it’s a teenage stand-in for sex. But it goes deeper than that.”
“It always does,” she says, knowing this was how we in the House of de Menich prepare to share our secrets—by making them a part of some epic drama, or at least a vampire film.
“Remember when you used to go to those church meetings on the West Side?”
“We played the game when you were gone. We played Cease and Desist. James was going on about how I needed to find a boyfriend, and I realized what he was really trying to tell me.” I follow a crack from the upturned glass that covers the light fixture in the ceiling.
“Nana. James had fallen in love with Philip Van der Ebb by then. But he was scared. I could see that every day he came home. I think it was one of the reasons he quit Romeo. Well, one day when he came home, he had bruises on his face and a swollen eye. I confronted him and he said he’d gotten into a fight in the Brambles—that’s a place in Central Park where gay men cruise for sex. And as I studied his face I understood what was wrong.”
“Don’t you get it, Nana?”
Nana shakes her head. She doesn’t get it.
“James had fallen in love with a rich, handsome boy—a boy he wanted to please—and he’d gone to the Brambles to find the experience he needed.” I wish I hadn’t tossed the loofah away, because I suddenly want to throw it in Nana’s face. She knew what the hell was going on. “After James got the invitation to the party the Van der Ebbs were throwing in the Hamptons, I knew he was getting in over his head.” Nana gets my look of accusation and turns back to the mirror.
“Nana. You could have stopped him from going to that coming-out party. Why didn’t you?” I’d never seen James so happy as when he got the engraved invitation. At first, I thought it meant “coming-out” like he was going to share his news about being in love with Phil and being gay—not that it would’ve mattered. This is New York. We were in the theater. Who the hell cares? But coming-out as in a deb ball? For that pig, Serena? “Couldn’t you see that was going to be a total disaster for us?”
I cringed when he pressed his lips to my ear and whispered “Van der Ebb” as if it were some secret code that would unlock all the exclusive doors to the Upper East Side. I’d watched my brother touch the gold-embossed letters on the envelope with the same excitement I opened my final instructions before each scene, as if this were his introduction to the world of privilege he needed so badly. Coming-out—like a bow in my hair— and the ballroom at the Plaza? Nana had taken me there for tea and that was about all we could afford. A customary dance at the Metropolitan Club and then let’s all pile onto the yacht we have moored in East Hampton to go for the unforgettable trip to wake-the-fuck-up-we-don’t-have-any-money-and-aren’t-like-these-people. But he wouldn’t listen when I told him I had a really bad feeling about the Van der Ebbs. Getting initiated into high society was a helluva lot different than just wearing those preppie clothes and adopting the mannerisms of our rich neighbors. He held the watermark up to the light, gently traced the gold lines of the Van der Ebb name on the thick cardstock with his finger, as if he’d just uncovered a long-lost relative through mountains of careful research in that genealogy he’d pored over when he was supposed to be in school. Nana takes a step into a shaft of crystallized light as I look out the window to the window of another apartment. I close my eyes, see my brother’s bruised face and that dejected look he wore like some lost Romantic poet.
“James saved my life and taught me everything I needed to get where I am now, and I was going to do everything I could to help him.”
“So where exactly are you now, young lady?” I know when Nana starts with the young lady that I’m in for more hand-wringing. I grope for the words and realize talking about vampires is the only way she’s going to get what I’m trying to explain.
“James told me it wasn’t just blood that vampires craved. He told me it went deeper than that. It was about kinship, family, and all the secrets families hide for generations—their taboo bonds.” Nana cringes and I know what she’s afraid of, what we’re both afraid of. She picks up a piece of broken stone tile from the parquet floor. We both look down as if I’m slowly reeling in some horrible creature from the depths. I have to tell her what my brother said on the day I left to play a vampire. The advice James gave me…
“Nana. James said if I wanted to get noticed, I’d need to find a role model—one of those girls he met at Dayton—and all I could think of was one of those rich, entitled people who held their secrets as tightly as they held their money for generation after generation.” I feel my skin prickle. The soap drops into the tub. Nana pulls her terrycloth robe up to the elbow and begins to fish. I push her hand away.
“Nana, do you remember when I went out to Century City to be in Vampire Grrls? Before I got on the plane, I pleaded with him—told him I was lost and didn’t know how to become a vampire—that I’d make all the same stupid tiresome choices that most other girls made. He knew I was scared. I thought I’d fall flat. How should I make my entrance? How should I kiss my first boy? But he just shrugged and said none of that mattered anymore. I’d done all the preparation he’d advised. Serena Van der Ebb was my role model. I had all her cool moves down—the way she’d lay out her plastic on the glass counters of display cases at Bendels and Bergdorf’s, and wait for the salesclerk to recognize her name.” (How she could say blow and blow job as casually as she called for a salesclerk or a waiter.) But beneath her privileged façade couldn’t James see Serena was a total pig? When I told her I was at Juilliard, Serena gave me the once-over and said, “Well, I’m sure there are parts for your type.” I didn’t know what she meant, but from the way she looked at me I thought she was saying, “I’m sure there are parts for poor girls with big noses.”
“Nana. You remember the night he went to the coming-out party,” I say accusingly. “You got him a driver for the ride out to Long Island because he didn’t want to show up at a big estate in the Hamptons in a taxi from the train station. I kissed James goodbye with all the odd trepidation I tried to dismiss as envy.
“And you know what happened after that, Nana.” After the coming-out party, Phil invited him over to his place on Park Avenue, said he wanted James in his little club of boyfriends, only there was an initiation. James had to make out with another boy. Phil secretly filmed the whole thing and sent it to James’ classmates at Dayton. I came home from rehearsal that night and found him crying on his bed. He made me watch the tape. I said nothing. I felt the same cool, furious rage I’d felt when I played a vampire, when I’d adopted the mannerisms of Serena. That hard, gemlike flame burned in my chest and I swore my revenge. I dried my brother’s tears and said it was time to take the game to the next level. I feel trapped in that memory, now. “Ever since we got here James said I had to be tough to survive in this business, and I couldn’t stand to see him like that—weak, or at least weaker than I’d ever seen him—”
“It was that game—it made you stronger, but him weaker,” Nana, says. She turns her back to me, faces the window.
“Well, I told him I was going to make things right, but he just gave me his Jesus face—that’s what I used to call that stupid, lost, martyred look that told me the world could beat him as badly as Jeanne had been beaten and it wouldn’t matter. That’s when I slapped James. Hard. Across the mouth and called him a selfish prick.”
Nana holds her hands to her ears and says, “Enough.” But I have to tell her everything.
“He said I needed to learn something about love. That the love I thought I knew wasn’t really love at all. I told him to stop being a child and find a boyfriend.”
I grab the rim of the tub, pull myself up. “Nana. I understand why he brought that girl here. At first, I thought he was angry that I was getting work and he was all alone. I thought he wanted to make me jealous…”
“And you didn’t do anything to her?”
“No.” Nana raises her hand to her face. I hope it’s just to wipe away the steam. “He wanted me to become Serena Van der Ebb and it wasn’t just to please him. That rich girl became my role model for when I played a vampire and…” She turns from the mirror with my toothbrush.
“He’d saved my life, Nana. Finding him a boyfriend so he could feel confident with Phil was the least I could do. We played the game. I told him he was a rich count from a former French colony. And I was his loyal sister who had the demanding role of interviewing boys to see if they had what it takes to become his lover. I went down to a gay bar in the village when you were at those church meetings. I found a cute boy and brought him home. I’d bought James a navy blue blazer with a gold crest on the pocket from the Ralph Lauren flagship store and a pair of those velvet slippers that I knew he loved.” Nana gives me a look as if I’d stolen something. “I paid for everything after you opened the account for me with my first check from Romeo.
“He sat in your Chippendale chair as I introduced them and then I made myself scarce. But when I came back about half an hour later, the boy had this strange look on his face that told me he was ready to throw in the towel. James had this impish grin, and I could tell he was no longer playing the rich count. The boy took off and I told James he was being a real prick; but I felt so sorry for him. No matter how much he’d tried to lose himself in the bright lights—no matter how many different characters we raced to become—our past would never go away.” I sit up on the rim of the tub. Nana comes around and rubs my back.
“And then one night he brought her home?” she asks. “This girl? What did you do to her?”
“Nothing—really. Cheery…Cherise… She was drunk and stupid—I was furious that he brought her home.” I take another breath and see the girl’s face—though the first thing I see is her knockoff Prada bag and that awful habit she had of flipping her blonde locks over her shoulder with her thumb and forefinger.
“Nana. Nothing happened.”
“Then where the hell is this Cherise?”
“How do I know?”
I remember the look on Cherise’s face after I got her down the service entrance and onto First Avenue. A freezing wind off the river nearly blew her over. She was about to do a face-plant into the oncoming traffic…I must’ve pushed her back up on the curb. But she managed to hail a cab and that’s the last I saw of her. I swear. I had blood on my hands that must’ve been from a bloody nose I got after watching her make out with my brother. I never laid a hand on her…
“Do you remember how I called every night to read him the revisions over the phone when I was in Century City?”
“Yes.” Nana looks angry.
I’m naked in the tub. “The night before my big scene in Vampire Grrls, I called him.” Another deep breath. “The distance apart had given us the freedom to talk about all those things we both were afraid of. I asked him why he quit. What our real mother had been like. What he thought was in store for me.” I can’t read my Nana’s look as I say this. It’s hopeless, loving, caring…but demanding, too. I can’t lie to her, and I can’t change the subject anymore. I open my mouth before I can think…
“James said there was a curse in our family that was more real than anything I could ever play as a vampire. I knew he wasn’t making it up, but when I confronted him he changed the subject, asked me if I wanted to stand out as a vampire. Of course he knew the answer, and I never got him to explain…” I place my hands on my stomach and stare Nana down. She turns and fumbles through the vanity. “James said, ‘You remember that girl I brought back to the apartment?’ and then he burst out laughing. ‘You should’ve seen the look on your face, sis’—and then I understood. Cherise was an outsider—like a human who had intruded into our vampire world—and the cold, furious hurt I felt was exactly what my character needed to come alive. So while the other vampires devoured their boys and emoted their lines—I slowly sucked mine dry as if he were a cool drink. It was all a lie—pretending to be a rich girl—and I knew it, but James didn’t.”
I step into the soft, crystallized shadows and take the big towel Nana holds out, her legs out wide and that wounded look on her face like a trainer who’s calling a fight. I bow my head and know, at least for now, she’s in my corner and my confession has gone far enough.
“It’s time you found out about some of the other strong girls who shared your gift,” Nana says, in a way I try to dismiss as solemn and cryptic but which comes out so matter-of-fact it gives me goosebumps. The grandfather clock strikes the hour. The smell of shaving cream rises through the crystallized sparkle of the bathroom, but Nana and I don’t shave. Memory is weird—a sight or sound can send you back a minute or ten years, and feel so real…I was trained to collect memories at Juilliard. To peel back their layers, distill them into senses—so I could laugh more convincingly. So I could cry on cue. I’m remembering my brother in this tub; remembering the going-away gift I’d given him, an old-fashioned shaving cream bowl and a brush. There were hairs on his upper lip I eyed with trepidation. I swished the cream with the old-fashioned brush nervously, as if all we had to do is get rid of that hair and we could return to paradise, or at least me hanging onto his waist in whatever theater would take us.
I eye the razor on the glass shelf beneath the mirror. I’m remembering what his chest looked like in the bathtub; those chestnut-colored hairs that had appeared on the rim of his aureole, like quiet sentries that would soon become an army…the scar on his inner thigh from where our mother accidentally shot him with that arrow, that purple gash that rose through the dirty water, a gash that warned me that beneath all that armor the knight who’d saved my life and taught me the secrets to becoming famous was human and tender and could be hurt. I wrapped my arms around his neck and cried—James please, please come back to me.
Nana looks down at her hand and sees she’s been holding my toothbrush. She turns to face the vanity. We can both feel what’s coming. A door slams in another apartment and then it feels as if we’ve entered the eye of a great storm; a single drop plops into the empty tub. Then another. I remember reading Sophocles at Juilliard. I remember thinking as I read Oedipus Rex that he must’ve been a really, really, handsome guy. That’s the only way for me to forgive Jocasta for sleeping with her own son. But then I realized she didn’t even know at the time that Oedipus was her son. At least Jocasta had an excuse. My real mother had none.
“James told me everything, Nana. He told me everything that your sis—our mother did to him.” I almost said your sister—I do that to blame my Nana, and I’ve decided I can’t do that anymore. But I blurt out mother—loudly and unapologetic—as if I’m standing in her place, and my brother is still in the tub that afternoon he told me about our mother and the secrets to becoming a vampire. Nana tucks her head down as if she’s trying to retreat into a shell. She stands in the shaft of light that has appeared through the steam and pushes her hands against her hips as if she were some lost figurine trying to escape a snow globe. She fishes in her pockets for a Kleenex, wipes her nose. We wait in the silence as if Jeanne might just intervene.
I close my eyes and remember that feeling of a hand on my shoulder—that sound of wings thumping beside my ears as the pulley swerved. It’d all been magic, the kind of tricks we went into a darkened multiplex to see.
I let out a long sigh.
But what about my hand with that sword?
The sword was fake, Cease.
What about the voice I heard as Eve wound up and punched me?
I was scared, the same way I was when I fell. My imagination was in overdrive.
Nana hands me the toothbrush.
“I tried to believe, Nana. I really did. And as far as this girl is concerned, Francis probably learned about her and fed it to the press, who called Esme and a detective.”
“I’m going to call the police. I’ll call Esme. No one can allow such things.”
“Nana, c’mon. We can’t do that.”
“Why not? It’s illegal, it’s—”
You’ve got to tell her why she can’t do that, Cease.
I look at the bathroom door. I try to imagine what my fans are going to write after seeing the latest scene tonight; that I didn’t have the range—that I got lost in my adolescent anger and missed the heart of a girl who spoke to God. I’m desperate and the only line that comes to me is the one Nana used after we got back from James’ funeral and I got the call from my agent. As one door closes…well, it feels like all the doors are closed now, at least the ones we wanted open.
“Can saints put curses on people?” I ask.
“But look what happened to the judges who put Jeanne to death.” I need to explain all the weirdness I’ve witnessed, and Jeanne is probably the only common ground we have left. “Nana, all the clerics involved in Jeanne’s trial met untimely ends. Cauchon died suddenly in 1432 while a barber was trimming his beard; d’Estivet, his close friend and co-counsel, disappeared mysteriously and his body was discovered in a gutter in Paris. And Nicolas Midy, one of the judges, was stricken with leprosy and consumed by the disease.”
“Saints are bequeathed by God to help us,” Nana insists. “You’ve got to let go of all that anger now, my precious. Your character is about faith and forgiveness.”
“My character’s dead.”
I close my eyes, see all those famous people on Claude’s trailer wall and think saints are nothing but the fame-hungry stars of another age. I feel my shoulders let go, as if they’d been pinned to my ears for the last four months. I study my bruises in the mirror. Nana follows me down the hall in that same protective, plodding way as when she played my Lady Capulet. I lie on my bed as she steadies an ice pack on my swollen jaw. She fishes through the closet for my pajamas.
“Nana? I have to admit something.” I rise, feel the ache in my head and lay back. “But don’t worry, it’s not about that girl. I thought I couldn’t live a day without James, but when I got on that plane to go out and play in Vampire Grrls I felt free. Free from his problems.” I feel guilty saying it after everything he’d helped me with. But it’s true.
I remember the afternoon. He helped me pack my things and then disappeared into his room. He was reading a book in the kitchen and I bumped into him, instinctively went for a hug and he went limp in my arms. It made me feel so terribly angry; as if, after all we’d been through, he still behaved like a little boy. But he wasn’t a little boy anymore. That was the problem. I bumped into him again in the living room, grabbed his waist and we went down in a furious tumble, like two angry cats, and then we stood silently and felt that awkwardness that comes with not knowing what to say.
Nana shrugs, shifts her gaze to the wall above me. I can tell she’s thinking about that genealogy that sits behind the locked screen in the living room. I can feel the secret sitting between us; one of those dark, toxic holes you think can only happen in Greek tragedies. But as I give her my doubtful look, Nana stares me down in a way I’ve never seen before.
She says, “You weren’t the first to play the game.”
I think my Nana might be senile; how could anyone else play a game that we created? Nana stands by the door. I don’t want her to go.
“Do you know James snuck into a matinee of Romeo and Juliet?”
Nana says, “Oh really,” in that lost, hopeful way she gets when she thinks I’m changing the subject.
“He said I was good. He said it in a way I totally believed him.” I start to cry. “He’d never said that to me before. After all the hard work, all the rejection, he was telling me that I could be good on my own. He was telling me I could conjure that magic we’d created together.”
She gropes for the light switch.
“Nana. I know you’re happy that I got to play a saint. I’m sorry I didn’t make it. But Jeanne made me feel real.”
She nods solemnly, plods up beside my bed, hugs me, and says, “It’s a blessing in disguise.” That’s what she always said when I’d come home after another rejection and find her waiting with her brownies and her faith.
I’m exhausted—too tired and wounded to sleep.
“As one door closes,” I say, and my voice feels as if it’s echoing from a room that has been locked for ages.
“Good night, Nana.” I hold her in a tight hug. I want to tell her that being with her feels better than standing on the podium beside Brad or any other guy or even a pantheon of Hollywood saints.
I don’t set the alarm clock beside my bed. No more early morning calls. No more of those crappy protein drinks. No more rich-bitch putdowns and assaults from Eve—I mean, Susan. And no more time travel—which means no more having to dwell in the past.
But I still can’t sleep, and after I hear Nana shut her door at the end of the hall I turn on the light, squint in the mirror—try to picture myself as a woman, but all I see are my bruises. The girl who’d slugged her way across battlefields four months ago is gone, but I know becoming a woman goes a whole lot deeper than just losing my virginity. Jeanne taught me that. Maybe I didn’t hear her voice, but she had been real, the first real person I’ve ever played—as real as the armor that weighed me down; as real as all the boys and girls who wrote me those emails with questions about how to make it across the battlefield of love and sex.
I turn the light off, toss and turn in the bed—try to find a position where something doesn’t hurt. What do the boys and girls think about Susan’s performance? Were more grown-ups watching? They were probably screaming for more sex and more violence. I get up and take out the rest of my clothes that lay in the duffel bag at the foot of the bed.
I’m free. The same way I felt when I got on that plane and headed back to California…
But I don’t feel free at all. The only thing I feel is guilty.
I finally fall asleep. Stars swim before my eyes in a strange dream. A purple gash on a boy’s thigh rises up from murky depths, and then I’m standing on 43rd Street—at the foot of the silver monolith, blinded by the light it reflects. The overpass on First Avenue is filled with photographers. They aren’t aiming for me—they’re photographing the light on the cross streets, aligned so perfectly to the city grid it feels as if I’m back on the set.
It’s that day of the winter when the sunset aligns itself perfectly with the city grid. A winter solstice—Manhattan-henge is what real New Yorkers call it.
And then a voice calls out to me. A voice I know as my character.
J’ai nom Jeanne la Pucelle.
Pu-cel-le…The way the voice stresses the third syllable tells me that the word is an adjective, not the noun as it now is in modern French.
I’m a girl and I am here to protect girls.
You are not just a maid, the voice informs me. You are pure, chaste, a virgin—that is the secret to your strength.
“Cease, wake up.” Nana’s gentle hands and spongy breasts are pressed against me. I heard the phone ringing in my dream, only it was disguised as a car engine revving. It’s a landline connected to a speaker that makes an awful din down the long hallway. It’s probably just someone from the studio to tell me I have to return the script.
Nana’s standing at my door. “It’s one of the production assistants. He says it’s urgent.” I feel like telling Nana to hang up. She’s holding the phone over the threshold of my doorway, as far as the cord will reach. I put on a towel and take it.
“Cease. Francis needs to speak with you,” an assistant says. “The numbers are in, Cease, and it’s incredible. They voted. They want you back.”
Nana eyes me gravely. She stands in the doorway with her arms across her chest.
What have I got to lose?
But Nana’s revving up with a monologue that says otherwise.
“You’re not going back, my precious. I lost a sister. I lost a nephew. I’m not going to lose—”
“Nana. I can’t hear what he’s trying to tell me.” I turn away. I should tell him to talk to my agent, but it’s past midnight. I have reservations, conditions, terms—because that’s what a grown-up would say, but all that comes out is, “Yeah. OK. I’ll be there at eight.”
I hang up. We stand together in front of the mirror. Nana’s silent as she gently presses her fingers against my swollen face. “Auugh!” I scream. I study the giant bruise on my cheekbone and my swollen eye. I hope Francis wants it real, cause that’s what he’s gonna get. I hobble down the long hallway to the living room. The teapot down the hall whistles and then I hear a crash and the slamming of cupboard doors. It sounds like a giant whirlwind has just engulfed our little kitchen.
“La Bete,” she cries. “He’s not going to take my baby.” And then my Nana’s blocking the front door. She hugs her terrycloth robe desperately and knocks the brass umbrella stand over with her foot.
“You’re not going, my precious. I’m not going to lose you to this—”
I’ve said my Nana’s shaped like a refrigerator but has all the warmth and security of a down comforter. Well, right now she’s just a refrigerator.
“What, Nana?— this curse—is that what you’re going to say? Just say it once, for the whole world to hear. That’s what we have in our closet. Let the chorus sing our condemnation. Whatever so-called gift you and James thought I’d been born with isn’t much of a gift at all…” I can feel myself wind up with the monologue I should’ve given last night. It wasn’t a victory speech and it wasn’t a confession—it was real, though, and so dark it would scare even the grown-ups.
I hear a whoosh, feel a sudden gust of wind—turn from the alcove to face the living room. Nana must have left the bookcase screen door open, and I eye the journals that hold our genealogy. She must’ve been going through them last night. A sudden chill washes across the room like a giant wave. She must’ve left the window open, too. But it’s January and the wind off the East River would freeze us—and then I see the open journal on the coffee table, its pages fluttering in the breeze.
First one way, then the other.
It stops with a sudden shift. I run and check the windows in Nana’s corner of the apartment. They’re all closed. I walk to the open page, stare down at the words with the excitement I feel when new scenes arrive.
“Nana,” I call. “Why did you leave the bookcase open?”
“I thought you did,” she says, still blocking the front door.
I look down at the page. The year is 1735, according to the faded ink at the top, above three boxes with horizontal lines. The name “Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst” appears beneath a box of two names…a marriage…the wife has a child named Sophie. The mother’s name is…I turn the page and see a heading entitled “Peter” beside one for “Tsarina Elizabeth.” I see the date August 21, 1745, and then Peter’s name in marriage beside Sophie. But the name that appears beneath it makes me drop the book back on the glass coffee table.
Catherine marries Peter. No big deal, until I realize this is Peter III. And that means…
“Nana. What is this?” But she’s already behind me with a protective hand on my shoulder and that solemn look she had after I found my brother’s last words in the script and she told me there were larger things at stake.
“This was one of those larger things you talked about, isn’t it?” I slowly raise the book. “Nana? Is this genealogy trying to tell me that our family is related to Catherine the Great?”
“You’re from a long line of strong girls,” Nana says flatly, as if she’s a waiter reminding me of a special on the menu. Then I remember the line in my dream.
I flip the pages forward. “I’m related to Catherine the Great?” I shake my head in disbelief. “And that character just happens to be appearing alongside me in a show by some crazy director?”
Only he’s not so crazy, Cease. Brilliant, yes, and definitely weird. But not crazy.
“You don’t find that a little—” I flip the pages forward. “Nana?” I point to the armoire. “This genealogy… all that so-called history—” I reach to pick up the book and then am suddenly afraid to touch it—“that your sister started was all made up. Right? You said James needed a father and a normal mother—so he just made them up, along with all the other rich people he wanted to be like when we lived on East End Aven—”
“Well, some of it was…”
“When was Susan B. Anthony born?” I ask. Nana tugs her robe in silence. “Must have been the early 1800s…” Nana stands mute, wearing a solemn mask, like she’s going into battle. The pages flip by themselves—the years spin backward, in a wild montage.
Western Massachusetts. A town in the Berkshires. I see it in a box; a marriage in the year 1818—“Margaret Lipscomb” alongside “Robert Anthony” and the name appearing beneath it—“Susan B. Anthony” in the year 1820. The teapot whistles and we ignore it. Someone wants to show me I’m related to the characters I’m going up against in a crazy reality-drama. Someone’s trying to show me I’m related to a bunch of real-life superheroes. There isn’t much to read but names and dates—and occasional annotations in fresher ink that I recognize as my brother’s inscrutable scrawl, but I dismiss these, the way I dismissed everything he did after Serena and her brother fucked with his head. I consider the contents as far-fetched, as unreliable as all the oracle-props I uncovered in the past or the future on the set.
Nana must’ve known keeping them locked away, but still in plain sight—would help me heal. Our mother had left them with Nana (had Nana insisted on this?) before she went out west to remake herself. She probably needed the same thing my brother had pined for: a rich, storied history that could make us appear as aristocratic as our name implied. James had unboxed them from the clutter in the linen closet when we lived uptown. Peering over his shoulder about a week after I’d gotten into Juilliard—looking down at all those lines and boxes containing names—watching my brother pore over each page with that earnest, solemn look and hoping they were real. I turn the pages, hold the book up to the light, trying to find a way to dismiss them as fake, but that facsimile of a wax stamp, dated and inscribed in Latin and French by a bishop in Paris, looks real—this is the stuff of legends—of cryptic crosses on Jeanne’s sword and knights Templar—all those Hollywood storylines I’d dismissed as stupid. I turn another page and feel the word in my head—it first rises in my chest and twists the bolt of grief until I gasp—
Not the histrionic lament of a girl playing a vampire, but the feeling I got when I first read Romeo and Juliet and realized, only a few pages in, these kids were going to die. Curse—as in something that was done by your blood relations, something so horrible it can’t be undone in a single generation.
Nana reprises her role as a French linebacker blocking the doorway. There’s a line between us—and right now it’s a line of scrimmage. “I love you, Nana. I know you won’t be able to rest until you hear what happened between James and me on the last night of his life, and I won’t be able to share that with you until you let me go.” I carefully pull at the cloth strap of the scapular, untangle it from the folds of my T-shirt and sweater, raise it up until my Nana blinks, steps aside, and hurries to the kitchen to turn off the teakettle.
Yousef picks me up a half-hour later. We’re headed to an airfield near Weehawken. Francis sits on a hydraulic lift in the prop depot, a giant hangar large enough to hold tanks and guns and an entire village that had been erected on the set. He fumbles with his tablet and the controls of the console. His chair buzzes, lifts, then descends. He looks like Charlie Chaplin fumbling though The Great Dictator. He’s wearing dark gray pants with a wrinkled, white shirt that tells me he’s probably headed to a meeting with his beloved producers. He’s looking at a scene on his tablet. I steal a glance over his shoulder and see it’s the crane scene: My free fall. (I wonder if he’s been playing it over as many times as I played it in my head—watching the pulley come loose, headed right for my face but then swerve…) He gives me a strange look that tells me I’m no longer cattle—I’m a strong girl with secrets he’s desperate to decipher.
“Young people—boys and girls between the ages of eight and fourteen, love you. They think you’re some kind of angel.” He raises a fat, little finger as he reads, “Cease de Menich has the face of an angel and the moves of a superhero—a boy from Van Nuys wrote that—a boy who’s supposed to like blood and guts and giant Transformers.” He shakes his head in disbelief. “Looks like you’ve got a fan base.”
I silently thank all those lost girls and boys who wrote me emails. I see my opportunity and take a step toward him.
“You shouldn’t act so surprised, Francis—you’re the one who came up with historic figures to take the place of all those phony superheroes, right?”
“I bet the critics thought you were nuts—but you showed them.” I pull at the long sock that hangs over my dirty Uggs, careful not to move too fast. “Tell me, how did you choose these characters? We certainly don’t have anything in common, do we?”
“No,” he says, and I can see his ego shine through whatever dark cloud the producers or the critics hold over him. My mind races as I try to remember what I’d read about Francis. He doesn’t care much for money and will bank anything on his vision, which makes him so invitingly dangerous to the studios. Maybe that’s it. He’s just gotten more money out of them and wants to be finished. He looks tired, like an exhausted Humpty Dumpty who fell and never got fully put back together again. But it’s more than money.
My Nana’s right—he’s got a big ego.
“These characters; an American suffragette, a Russian tsarina, and a French virgin, don’t have anything in common, do they?” I repeat. Francis grunts and looks back to his tablet.
“They were all just girls when they had to make great decisions about their lives and those they loved,” he says as if he’s reading copy for the trades.
“A long line of strong girls,” I say, drawing out each word carefully. “How’d you choose them?”
“I just went looking for the strongest young women I could find throughout history.” I suddenly feel empowered—but not just empowered—chosen in a way Nana was trying to get me to see, a way that went a helluva lot deeper than just getting a call from my agent. He shrugs. He’s telling the truth. Francis and his writers had no idea these characters had anything in common, and that tells me he’s probably telling the truth about those lines from my brother’s suicide note. He may enjoy mind-fucking me, but he doesn’t know just how close my real life is to this character I’m trying to become.
“What did you mean when you said you know what happens to anyone who gets between me and my brother?”
“Nothing, really. It’s just a rumor I heard about an investigation into a missing person.”
“Her name was Cherise and nothing happened between us,” I say confidently. I’m not going to turn back now. “Brad’s got a concussion and the giant who attacked us could’ve killed me. But that doesn’t matter to you, does it?”
“If you can’t stand the heat,” he says. The scar through his left eyebrow arches. He’s treating me like a grown-up now, and although a part of me still wants to run back to my Nana, run back to make-believe, I have to stand my ground.
I may be a grown-up, but I’m an expendable grown-up, and unless someone stops him there are going to be some dead actors in this all-too-real show.
“Francis. Why don’t you just cut the crap and face it. Your audience wants to see more than sex and smarm.” I feel my feet being drilled into the concrete floor—my training kicking in—telling me not to back down, because I doubt even famous actors talk to Francis like that. I’d been rehearsing that line since I hung up with the assistant last night.
Whoa, Cease, wake up. It hadn’t been last night. Nana got the call at two o’clock this morning. It’s eight now. I scramble for the rest of my monologue.
“Why do you think so many people voted to have me back?”
“I don’t know, really. Some say you look the most honest of all the finalists. A few say you look like a dark horse who’d have a big secret to share in the final round.” He cocks his head and gives me a tight-lipped grin. His cold, gray eyes stare me down. “How’d you like another shot at the podium?”
And before I can say anything, before I can tell Francis I’m on to his little games and have a few secrets of my own, he holds the tablet to my face like a crossing guard holding a stop sign to a jaywalker. I recognize the website—FANSCAN. Nana must check it every day—it tabulates all the votes from the viewers, the demographic trends on each character.
1. Jeanne d’Arc (Cease de Menich)—8,475,981
I’m on top. The numbers swim in my head like a solution to a problem my brain’s been trying to solve for months. I’ve beaten out not only Susan B. Anthony but, for the first time, Great Cate, who came in second with a scene of her taking out three armed men in a dark alley. I watch her moves in a window on the bottom of his tablet screen that plays beside my scene with Susan and Brad. Cate’s hands slice through the air in seamless blur; it looks like a real fight without any choreography, rehearsal, or blocking.
It looks like a real fight, because it is a real fight.
There’s the flash of a streetlight across her dagger as she drove it into an attacker’s ribs. It was real, unflinchingly real, and so was the cool, furious rage that flitted across great Cate’s beautiful face as she killed two men.
“I could quit, Francis.” I raise my hand to the cold morning air blowing through the great expanse of the hangar door. “I could walk right now—and who could blame me?”
“But you won’t,” he says, turning back to a clipboard beside the crane’s controls. “Because if you leave now, your fans will never forgive you.”
He’s right. I think about all those fans who shared their secrets with me, who need me. Maybe I really do have a message to share with the world, or at least a bunch of teenagers as lost as I am. But they’ll forget. Fame is short-lived.
But your agent wouldn’t forget, Cease. He’ll call you a lightweight, or worse. You’ll be cast back into the sea of wannabes. Remember all those early morning calls at the equity lounge? All those “generals” for parts already cast? Some assistant to an assistant with her stopwatch to make sure your monologue doesn’t go over a measly two minutes? Remember all those casting directors with their stupid lines and groping hands? And there’d be no one to hold your hand except Nana, and truth is she wants you out of this business in the worst way.
I remember the photograph on the wall of Francis’ trailer; his big smile holding two golden trophies in the crooks of his arms like they were newborns. Two Clicks from Abu Ghraib—his cinematic masterpiece. One of the extras died from heat stroke on location in Jordan, and when the lead actor (a big name) had a heart attack during a scene Francis kept filming.
Now, that’s the God I’d grown up believing in.
“Francis. You’re heading way off course. I know. My character’s telling me.”
I catch my breath.
Don’t start talking about hearing voices, Cease. No one wants to work with a nut job.
“Um—I mean—my character’s telling me not to go there.”
He sits up, reaches for a small bottle of club soda. “Pick a boy. Make love. Confess. Save the world,” Francis says, and it sounds like he’s reading the final instructions on a model he’s sick of building. “It’s happy. It’s Hollywood. And you might be just the right girl.”
“Since when are you Hollywood?” I counter. Money may mean nothing to him, but fame—that’s another story. Nana’s right. Francis will never be happy until he’s outdone every reality concept ever hatched by Hollywood, and the only way he can do that is by making it all so real that none of the critics could turn away.
“Stop calling me a girl. I wasn’t a girl when I nearly did a face-plant when the crane broke—” I steal another glance at his tablet. I know what he’s thinking. There’s something going on here that goes deeper than any of that crap his writers are putting on paper. A lot deeper. And then I think, why not just tell him how I really feel?
“Francis,” I say growing bolder with each word. “Do you even know the plot of this reality show? We are three historic figures who are supposed to find the right boy, fall in love, and save the universe? Do you know how stupid that sounds to girls and boys my age? Why don’t you just drop all this nonsense about riddles and codes and secret crosses on Jeanne’s sword? It’s so Dan Brown.” I wait for his reaction, but Francis stares me down. “If you want to show a bunch of fame-hungry girls try to kill each other and then go all the way with the boys, then just do it. Don’t try to make it part of some epic drama.” I take a step and raise my fist as defiantly as my character did to the clergy—“but that’s not what boys and girls my age want to see.”
His eyes look tired as he asks, “Just what do boys and girls your age want to see?”
I see the faces of all those wannabes at Manny’s studio, remember all those emails with questions about love that I didn’t know how to answer. How much I want Brad. How much I hate Susan. But last night when I was forced to let go of all those emotions—when I put aside the want and the hate, I felt swept away with emotions I’d never felt before…
And then I get a Big Adult Thought—that’s what I call it because the moment it pops into my head it makes absolutely no sense—which means to me either it’s stupid or something only an adult could come up with (or both); someone—or something other than Francis and his writers—has helped create this drama. Francis isn’t in control—and this thought scares me because it tells me whoever is in control knows all my secrets.
This leads to a thought I first got when Claude told me what I had to do to be the last girl standing; if I want to win I must share a part of my life I’ve kept secret—
Don’t go there. It’s just too real…tell him he’s got to stop with the violence because we’re just kids getting a taste of this drug called fame and we want more…
“Francis. Girls want more than incredible sex and over-the-top fame. Or maybe they realize watching other people having sex and being famous isn’t going to help them find love. They don’t need to see me win a catfight with Eve just to claim Brad like some prize steak. They want us to fall in love, not rip off each other’s bloodstained clothes and have sex. Love is real—I’ve felt it. And it’s dangerous—I’ve felt that, too. Real love is more than friendship. It’s more than lovemaking. Listen, my character has grown, matured, and the reason everyone wants me back is because Jeanne has a message she needs to share. A message we all need to hear.” I look at the ground between us and actually believe I’ll see the gauntlet I’ve just thrown down. Francis gives a sigh of utter incomprehension.
“I honestly don’t know what to make of it. All the focus groups we used—” He sips from his club soda and wipes his face with his sleeve.
“Admit it. You wanted me to kill her last night, didn’t you?”
Francis fumbles for his glasses, picks up his tablet, pretends to read. I stare him down. He scratches his thigh and after an awkward beat finally says, “So where exactly have you been told to take your character?” There’s a touch of his old sarcasm, but is God actually asking me for advice?
“I don’t know, exactly. But I definitely think my character’s got a message she needs to share with young people.” I take a step back and trace my Big Adult Thoughts again, step by step, as if I’m slowly reeling in a fish. I feel taller as I look up to him; Francis—The Great Dictator—is little more than Charlie Chaplin in that silly highchair.
“I want Brad,” I say, “but not in the way I wanted him before. Not in the way you wanted to see. I know you want to see sex and violence, Francis—I guess everyone does, but it’s the hunger all young people feel when they first think about these things that you should be showing—a hunger you’ve found before in your masterpiece—Two Clicks From Abu Ghraib.”
Great, Cease. Appeal to his ego. Directors love that.
“Yes,” Francis nods. “I think that’s just the kind of choice I can work with.” He holds out his hand. I don’t think he’s listening. I reach up and it feels like I’ve been cast in some religious fresco with God reaching down from the heavens to touch a mortal’s hand, only this God doesn’t have the power he thinks he has.
“I know you want things real, Francis. But you’d better watch out. Be careful what you wish for.”
He stares me down. “What do you want, Cease?”
I feel it rise in my chest like a clenched fist. I know it’s not love. I know it won’t unlock that bolt of grief that’s been tightening since my first day on the set, but I can’t resist it.
“Put me in the final round against Catherine the Great and you’ll get numbers you never dreamed of,” I say.
“Yes. But first you have to kill Susan.”
Francis looks to his tablet, fumbles with his club soda. I study the concrete floor. Did he just say what I thought he said? It feels as if we’re both on the edge of an abyss and just can’t turn back. Francis pushes a button on the tablet, holds it up to my face. There are windows three down and four across, each with a close-up of my face. I’m wearing all the outfits for past and future—ancient armor in one shot, streamlined future-wear designed by Claude in another. I look anxious, stoic, valiant, but common, almost self-effacing—the mask I wear in everyday life, before I gently touch my fingers to my upper lip and magically transform. I study each shot. The two index fingers of my left hand are all in exactly the same place, gently resting on that cleft I have on my upper lip. Francis waits for this to sink in, then pushes another key and I see the transformation—presto! Almost another girl appears—as if a magician has snapped his fingers, pulled back a veil to reveal an electrified version of my old self. My eyes are transformed. My cheekbones—even under Molly’s ruddy hues—become luminescent. I cock my head and wonder what Francis is thinking. That I’m some kind of freak? But he doesn’t look surprised. Why should he? He’s in the star search business. Finding girls and boys with this gift is his job.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he says.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He presses another key. Another twelve windows cascade down, only these are stills of Stephanie. She looks beautiful, but so what? Then he presses another key and I see it—the after-Stephanie; her face lights up like a Roman candle. She’s beyond gorgeous; she positively glows. I transform from plain to comely. Stephanie transforms from beautiful to ethereal.
“If I told you the names of some of the others I’ve seen with your gift, you’d probably be impressed,” Francis says. He’s talking but I’m frozen, angry for not having seen that Stephanie has it too. And she probably already knows where it came from. Nana’s strange warning suddenly makes sense: You weren’t the first girl to play the game. Other girls have what I have. Plenty of them do. Stephanie and I are just a couple of promising upstarts among the thousands he’s seen. I’m lost—I can feel the Big Adult Thoughts slipping away…
“Well, it looks like we’re gonna let the sparks fly in the final round,” I say, hopefully.
But I still know something you don’t…at least I think I do.
“Yes,” he says, but I can still see that haunting look he had when he said I have to kill Eve. “You’re lucky to have been born with such a beautiful gift, Cease.” Francis raises his club soda. “But there are others, too. Not so lucky…” he lets out a sigh, “not so well-adjusted…” His scrutinizing look is like a body scan and makes me feel naked. I’m wearing my brother’s baggy letter-sweater. His jeans, too. What was I thinking when I got dressed this morning?
“Have you ever heard of Janet Hodgkins?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Janet was at the final callbacks with you. Nearly beat you out, too.” Now I remember a girl who stood near me while we listened to Francis’ final instructions. Petite. Pert smile. Long arms. Francis’ sick smile tells me something terrible must’ve happened to her.
“She had the gift. Unstable, though. Of course, that’s what I see a lot of in young talent. The night before I made my final decision, Janet told me she was dying to play this role, dying to become Jeanne d’Arc. Then she went home and stabbed her mother with a knife. Dead.” Francis pushes a button and begins a slow descent. “It’s a tough business,” he says with a creepy smile.
Be careful what you wish for, Cease.
I nod and shrug. “Yeah. Lucky I’ve got my Nana.”
“Get ready for a big climax, young lady,” he says, and hands me the card key to my trailer. I hurry out of the hangar. I may have nailed my monologue, but Francis won the battle—the only line I hear as I pass beneath the long barrel of a tank is: But first you have to kill Susan.
Jeanne d’Arc Is Back By Popular Demand
I laugh when I see the sign hanging on my trailer door. I might be afraid of Francis but can’t be mad at him for long. We’re on a gorgeous estate in Ridgewood, New Jersey. I feel a funny relief that it’s Jeanne’s name up there and not mine, because in my heart I understand it’s my old self, my old life I need to sacrifice to become her.
I take the scene the assistant hands me and don’t open it until I’ve closed the door to my trailer. The envelope isn’t gold but it might as well be when I discover what’s inside. I’m about to appear beside a major Hollywood star. Yesterday, Francis cans my ass and today I’m to appear with Craig Sterling. The Craig Sterling. This is either the biggest break of my life or a cruel trick. I’ll prepare for both.
Scene VII. A little soiree to celebrate the perfect couple. All those who were passed over or died on the battlefield are invited to meet and mingle with the perfect couple. Secrets to the future will be shared. The past will be revealed. The setting: a stately mansion outside Paris. Time: The future.
I’m not Craig’s main scene partner. But I’m still standing. Unless I get nixed in this scene, I know I’ll make it to the final round. I gaze at the red carpet to the mansion on the hill, those soaring windows and the hedgerow maze in the front yard that could probably keep a person lost for hours. I close my eyes and feel the eerie deja vu.
Stephanie makes her way along the red carpet as I watch from my trailer window. I hear the clicking of the cameras as she finds the morning light. She’s beautiful in that gorgeous, sequined creation I’d admired on Claude’s bed yesterday; it radiates through the huddle of photographers, its umber hues ruffling like feathers in a spring breeze. I don’t recognize all the boys and girls who arrive for the big party—hopefuls who’d been passed over or died on the battlefield—dropped off in limos, looking more beautiful and glamorous than anyone at the cast party for Romeo and Juliet or the opening night of Vampire Grrls. Claude or one of his assistants must’ve dressed them while I was home with Nana nursing my wounds.
Brad’s dancing on the red carpet. Eve’s nowhere in sight. I have a bruise on my left cheek and my nose is sore. I scan the scene.
Craig has escaped a penal colony on a distant planet and joined Brad in the resistance. Great. So now there are two irresistible guys I get to choose from. And I’m going to a party where I’ll make out with Craig. I read the scene more carefully because it’s too good to be true. My eyes race for Claude’s trailer. Maybe I’ll finally get to wear an outfit as beautiful as what Eve wears. Maybe even one of those creations that Stephanie—the ice princess—gets to wear.
But would that really be my character? I think of all the pain Jeanne endured—being tortured, maybe even raped in prison—and here I sit worrying over my costume and how to kiss a man.
Let go of the guilt, Cease. If Jeanne’s out there…if saints really do contact people in our world, she’s probably just trying to tell you to be yourself. Let go of who you thought you were supposed to become and be who you are…
I close my eyes and imagine my entrance; catching Craig’s eye through the crowd. He’ll take me aside to share a secret. We’ll retreat to the bedroom…Then what? We’ll talk about the virtues of being a virgin?
Wake up, Cease. He’s a man and isn’t going to settle for talk or a peck on the cheek.
Outside, a loudspeaker calls my name.
A circle of reporters surrounds the new heartthrob at the foot of the red carpet. He’s not as tall as Brad. He isn’t as muscular as Rex. But even in the wan light Craig glows like an Aztec god. Seeing him feels like the day my acceptance from Juilliard arrived. Craig Sterling isn’t just a star; he’s a man—twenty-six years old—and already playing young-dad roles. I wonder what it will feel like kissing a man. He turns in my direction and I dip my head back into my trailer.
I race to Claude’s trailer, knock on the door. An assistant tells me Claude’s not feeling well and blocks the door. I can see legs on the small cot in between boxes filled with shoes. I stick my head in.
“Claude? Are you OK? It’s Cease.”
His hands tremble as he raises his arms to his chest. I try to push the door open but the assistant blocks it with her foot. She shoves a white dress with a red fleur-de-lis insignia at me and then closes the door. It looks so plain. It’s wool; navy blue with white trim down the lapel, like something a flight attendant would wear with a pill-box hat. It looks futuristic. The lights over the electronic billboard flash from red to yellow. I race back to my trailer, get dressed. The lights flash again. I take my mark, but just as Francis takes his place in the seat behind the main camera, a man in a suit walks right through the crowd and blocks the camera.
“Francis. I need to speak with you.”
Hurry up and wait.
Francis throws down his headphones and stomps off to his trailer, the man in the suit not far behind. There’s shouting—then what sounds like an object being thrown against the trailer door. I hear the word “contract” being chanted as more objects crash against the door.
Hurry up and wait.
Wannabes who bypass the stage directly for the silver screen, please write that line on your trailer door.
I hear the sirens. EMTs jump from an ambulance that’s raced up the gravel drive and screeched to a halt outside the perimeter of the trucks. I figure Francis has finally gone postal, but Connie the continuity lady takes them to Claude’s trailer. The assistant lets them in, blocks my way.
I show her my fists. “I want to see him, now.” But I feel a grip’s hands from behind, pulling me back, and I watch as they wheel Claude in a stretcher to the ambulance.
I can tell even behind the oxygen mask he recognizes me. He’s shaking his head in spastic jerks, adamantly…trying to warn me? I break free of the grip and get to Claude’s side. His hand jerks out from the straps. He pulls the blanket down below his chest and points with two fingers at his shirt pocket. He’s trying to tell me something—but before I can reach him one of the EMTs pushes me away and Claude’s already in the ambulance. I fish through the breast pocket of my dress and pull out a small piece of lined, yellow paper. The grips and sound techs are in a huddle gossiping as I open the letter:
Cease. Be careful. At the party someone from your past will be wearing a gold insignia on his lapel shaped like a crossbow…I was asked to sew a pocket into the vent of his blazer. It will probably hold a weapon. You must know by now what some of us on the crew have already figured out. You aren’t the first actor with real wounds. One of the boys who “died” on the battlefield in the first month of shooting is dead from his wounds…be careful. You’re still the dark horse. I think winning to you is incidental. You’ve got a confession you’ve got to share with the world.
I’m sick. But old dressers never die—they just go back to their closets.
Break a leg,
The electronic clock blinks DELAY—20 MINUTES. I look down and see blood on my hand from a cut in my fight with Eve. I must’ve torn at the scab. It gives me an idea. I find a bandage in the first-aid kit beneath the bed. I wait just outside Craig’s trailer and make some noise until he opens the door and sees helpless me.
“Need help getting that on?”
From behind him in the trailer comes the noise of an announcer speaking in Spanish, calling a soccer match. Craig wears a white shirt with epaulets, blue jeans, and a pair of suede cowboy boots.
He smiles. His eyes twinkle. Craig has the body of a muscular boy, the rugged face of a man.
“You need some antiseptic for that, too.” He lets me in, opens the cabinets beneath a sink until he fishes out a white box. His entourage is out, and while I imagined him walking into some exclusive club or restaurant with a woman on each arm, he’s here, by himself, just watching a game.
“You can sit here.” He pulls out a chair from the oval table beneath the flat screen. It is set with embroidered place mats, flatware, and real china. He picks up his script from the table behind him.
“I’m glad you stopped by, Jeanne.” It comes out perfunctory, the way Craig calls me by my character’s name; but it tells me he hasn’t let fame get in the way of his training as an actor. “I just don’t understand this character. He’s much more complex than anyone I’ve played before, though maybe that’s not saying much. After all, I’m just Hector.” He’s trying to be disarming, referring to The Illegals, the semi-satirical TV show of a resident alien who dreams of becoming a Los Angeles detective. It won him two Emmys.
“This is going to hurt.” He dabs alcohol on the gash.
I feel a sting, but not from the antiseptic. Craig’s voice trails off as he tears the bandage wrapper open. There’s something about him I don’t like. Maybe something that scares me. He sounds as callous as Rex, but with a helluva lot more talent.
The flat screen flashes a replay of a team scoring a goal.
I wanted to call Nana as soon as I saw him with the reporters on the red carpet. I didn’t need to check his history online the way Nana had checked the other characters for me. Craig Sterling didn’t come from money or a family of famous entertainers. His history was as weird and humble as mine.
Talk about what you have in common. Make him feel in charge. Stars like that.
“I bet you’ve got a few stories about what it felt like to cross over into a mainstream audience.”
OK, that sounded pretty stupid, Cease. Just nod your head.
“I don’t like it when people get into my business,” Craig says as he tears off the adhesive. “I can always tell an actor’s lying when they say they had a real traumatic childhood and then they talk all about it.” His affable look suddenly seems more calculating. “Because if you really had a shitty past, you can’t bear to talk about it, now can you?”
His look makes me feel exposed—guilty—as if that script in his lap contains a detailed file on my personal life. He must sense it. He rests his hand on my shoulder as if we’ve been friends for years, but I’m not feeling it. All that gushy love that welled up in my chest as I sat with Brad on our first date is gone. (Maybe I am ready to step up to a real relationship.)
“I come from a pretty normal family,” he says. “Normal. That’s where I tell everyone I’m from—a town called Normal, but don’t try to find it on any map.”
Normal—God, how I want to be from that place too. It sounds like the first drops of rain I could almost hear when the applause begins. A small house on the Hudson where I’d wanted to take my brother, a yard—maybe even a view of the Tappan Zee…
And then he looks around the trailer in a restive, cautious way I recognize—fame had landed on his doorstep with the same weird backlash that it had landed on mine. We have something in common: what it felt like to suddenly land that plum role everyone told you was out of reach, as if we didn’t deserve it, as if it were all just a big mistake and soon there’d be someone who’d show up at our door and take it all away.
“Normal’s a tough place to come from in this business.”
“I know what you mean,” I chime in. And I did.
“There. All better.” He rubs my forearm, gives my hand a quick peck. His lips are so sensitive, a real contrast to that rugged face. “Turning the other cheek is a stretch for me. My mother taught me to forgive my enemies—but my father taught me to never forget their names.” He picks up the script. My mind races as he turns the pages.
“I had you checked out.” He snaps the first-aid kit shut. “Don’t be offended. It comes with the job. I was sorry to hear about your brother. My manager told me to walk on this project after my cameo, but I need this show. I need to nail this character.”
“But it’s just a feeling. And you don’t know why?” I offer.
“Oh. I know the reason why. It’s because of you.” I feel my knees go weak and am relieved to be sitting down. My skin prickles. “Besides, you white girls are a helluva lot easier to handle than Latinas.”
What the hell is that supposed to mean, mister heartthrob?
He puts his hand on my knee and suddenly I feel like am sitting with a stranger—that no matter how grown-up I appear to the world, all adults are strangers, nothing more than a faceless mass in the darkness beyond the footlights; they judge you, they applaud, but also cough and talk, munch on popcorn, sometimes even hiss. When you take off your clothes, a hush falls over them as if they are little more than dressed-up children. They can’t be trusted, except for my Nana, and these days I don’t trust her enough to tell her everything. I wonder how many women Hector seduced with a line like that.
Don’t fool yourself, Cease…he wants a woman, and with those almond-shaped, emerald-green eyes, that gorgeous brown skin, he can have just about any woman he wants.
But he needs me…at least, that’s what I’m feeling. Why?
Because he needs to cross over. Because there’s a line between you. You’re a white girl, he’s a Latin star who needs to cross over…Hollywood isn’t colorblind and neither is the Great White Way.
I remove his hand from my knee, gently. The announcer shouts goooooal. Craig gives me an irritated look. I need to make a choice. I could run back to that doll’s house where Brad and I had played grown-up or I could stay here, stand my ground.
Keep him talking. Maybe he’s just as insecure as I am.
“I’d love to hear how you first crossed over,” I state matter-of-factly. I know if I play a groupie that hand will return to my thigh. Craig shifts in his seat, crosses his legs at the knee.
“Well…our music was still mostly popular with a Latin audience, but I remember walking down main street and running into a sorority girl the week they picked up our pilot. I was just in high school, but we called all the rich, white girls sorority girls—not that it mattered—none of them ever talked to us. But this one did. She even asked if I had a date for the prom.” Craig shrugs and glances up to the soccer game. “What a difference a day makes,” he boasts. His hair has a coppery hue beneath the halogens. I can hear someone outside counting down from ten.
I wonder if men really do kiss differently.
“You can’t be as scary as a sorority sister.” Craig says. He glances down at the script in his lap.
“But—it appears I’m easier to control than a Latina.” I stand, level a finger at the heartthrob’s chest. “I may not be a woman, but you’re not going to treat me like a fool.” I swallow. After a beat and a deep breath, I feel it; we’ve just clicked, in that genuinely awkward way Francis would love.
So just what the hell do I do now? What the hell would a woman do?
You bargain. You show him what you’ve got and what you can give him if he wants to make that transition to real drama. Craig’s an adult and that’s what adults do. If I want to be taken seriously, I’ll have to step up and show him our chemistry isn’t based on a girly crush.
“I can help you nail this character. I know life isn’t supposed to be like the movies, but in my case someone’s making an exception,” I say. There’s a loud bang outside. I feel a jolt through my chest. Craig looks cool. I study his eyes. “You need to win a white girl’s heart. That’s what you need to do if you expect to make the crossover you want to make.”
I may just be a girl, but I’m a girl who knows the score. And when it comes to the movie business, it’s always later than you think.
His left eye twitches. I hold out my hand. He gives me the script. I read his lines, think about what Francis is really driving at, and then smile because I can tell where we’re headed.
“Here.” I point out a section of script. “Where you say, ‘Loving me is hard.’ What do you think your character is really trying to say?”
“That I’m a human and you’re someone special, like a saint.”
“Yes. But you’ve got to think in stronger terms, Craig. What if I were a vampire and you were a human? Or what if your respectable family hated my family and they said if we fell in love you’d be banished. What would you do then?”
“I get it.”
He gives me a look of disapproval and I feel the way I’d felt in my climax yesterday with Brad and Eve. I want to kiss him the same way I wanted to devour boys when I played a vampire.
What’s this scene really about, Cease?
It’s about me kissing a man.
It’s about me kissing a man and not falling in love the way I almost did with Brad.
“Do you get it?” Craig asks. His look is almost a leer as he stands and puts his hands on my waist. “Because if we want this scene to work—if we really want to nail it—our kiss isn’t gonna be one of those pecks on the cheek that I used to get on that sitcom.”
I take one of his hands in mine. “I know the score, Craig. I’m a girl and you’re a man. And I’m a white girl.”
There. Suck on that, mister heartthrob.
He coughs and I know my white-girl line has found its mark. The game’s over, at least on the flat screen. Two men are talking about the performance of the players.
“What do you think of Francis?” Before Craig can answer, I add, “He was a real bastard before you came on board.” I make a fist with my right hand and punch it into an open palm. “Now he’s a lot more affable but I think there’s something up…”
“He’s got a lot on his mind.” Craig sighs as if he has just emerged from a high-level negotiation with his manager and Francis’ people and knows exactly what Francis has on his mind. He reaches back, pulls open a drawer beneath a microwave, and pulls out a big, thick leather wallet—the kind that could only fit in a breast pocket, and I think about all the times I enviously watched Serena Van der Ebb pull out her credit card and place it on the glass counters of Saks or Bendels and wait for the clerk to recognize the name. Craig tucks a receipt from his breast pocket into the folds of the wallet and puts it back.
“It’s about trust,” he says.
“Of course. Trust.” But I don’t know what else to say.
Let him sound important. Stars really like that.
“I mean sharing our dialogue,” he continues. “Strictly against the rules. But if we trust each other, we just might come out of this film with what we want.” He places his hand on my knee. “My manager told me that many of your early suitors offered bribes to the writers to find out what you were going to say.”
And then I get another Big Adult Thought: I don’t trust Craig. I can see what he’s trying to do. With his star power, he’s used to getting his way with a novice. I feel my chest tighten. “I read that online,” I reply. “I don’t think it really matters. Francis may act like he hates actors, but he knows good acting. The ones he chose to move on were always the ones that gave the best performance. What do you really want, Craig?”
“Making a successful crossover is a lot harder than it sounds. I need someone I can trust—someone who can adapt quickly, because I feel a big plot shift coming on.”
“Of course you do, Craig.” I study his face. The laugh-lines around his eyes are distinguished, alluring in the same way kissing him was. But Hollywood might not think so. I can tell by the careful way he is choosing his words what he’s afraid of. A perfect love scene with the right girl would save him. I picture Eve’s body and feel the envy, but then I remember her bold moves with the boys. I bet he saw yesterday’s footage alongside all those kids who made up the focus group. Hell, maybe Craig was the focus group. Craig wouldn’t look young with a girl like Eve who knew all the moves.
“You need me, Craig.” He turns his head to the microwave and makes like he’s searching for the remote to turn off the soccer match, but I’m too quick for him. “If they try mind-fucking me with that crazy shit about my brother, I’ll turn myself back into a tough boy and you’ll look pretty—” I wait for our eyes to meet —“stupid.” I almost said the word every actor in Hollywood and New York dreads: Old. He understands. I soften my gaze. “I think a little maturity might be good for my career, but I need to know what I’m getting into.”
After a sigh, Craig says, “Francis is sick of the studio. Who can blame him? All those people know how to do is typecast actors. He’s got a big surprise, a peripet…” Craig stops, looks unsure.
Be careful. Don’t push too hard. Let him think he’s in control.
“Peripeteia? Is that the word he used?”
“Yes,” he says. “What does it mean?”
“It’s from Greek tragedy. It means a sudden reversal.” I feel the bolt of grief sink deeper in my chest. I know the word by heart. I’ve lived it. “A reversal—usually from good to bad…” my heart sinks as I think about the secrets Francis might share with the world. “What kind of reversal is it going to be?” I demand. “How’s this show going to end?”
“I don’t know.” Craig stands. “And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Yes. You were right when you said it was about trust.” I bow my head, rest it on his firm chest. I gently massage the palm of his hand with my thumb and forefinger. “Craig. Have you ever felt a chemistry with someone that felt so deep it actually changed your appearance?”
He gives me a strange look, puffs out his chest. “Yes. Once. It was at a stage audition, a girl who was playing my lover.” He sighs. “I guess all actors have a ritual before they go on…she tugged at her ear and her whole face changed. She really took off. I felt it, too. But I didn’t get the part.”
Craig has lowered his guard and for another precious moment I feel we could really click. We both need to cross over. He could make me a woman. I could make him more than just a Hector in Hollywood’s eyes.
“It takes a saint to unlock the true secrets in a man’s heart,” Craig says. I laugh because he says the line in the voice of Hector—his character, the wannabe alien detective.
Back in my trailer, I open the genealogy to a purple ribbon Nana must have gotten from her sewing kit and placed there before she tucked the book into my bag. What was Nana trying to get me to see? What was Jeanne trying to get me to see? I look down at the names and try to see their faces. Jeanne’s older brother and sisters having children, and the names given to them, and the names those children had given…on and on. All those names like determined armies marching across the pages of history. I feel the centuries pass with each turning page, as the Gaulish surnames get replaced, crossed over, smudged out with the great migration from Old to New World. I’m not related to a saint. Jeanne d’Arc died a virgin. I’m related to her elder brother, Jacques, who safely guarded his sister’s private possessions and last words.
Falling. As if a trapdoor had given way and I’d found a secret passage to a world that lay on the other side of my bolt of grief. A storied heritage I’d seen in my brother’s eyes as he turned these pages. A past dismissed as the wishful thinking of a wannabe. Pages fluttering in a darkness that lies beyond a most unbelievable plotline.
I feel my finger grow warm as I place it on the name at the top of the page. “Geneviève Portia de Thurn.” A small cross appears beside it. I look down to the next cross a generation later beside the name Matilda. And then another…Small crosses appear beside almost all the names of the d’Arc family descendants from the 15th century all the way to the 20th century, when Jeanne was finally made a saint. Christine, Sophie, Mathilde, Françoise, Margot, Rose, Louise, Denise, Elisabeth, Geneviève, Blanche…
The decades give way to centuries, and baby names come in and out of fashion. Life as a girl in another age—they made garlands and played beside boys. They learned to knit, to milk a cow, to feed their younger siblings. But they sure as hell didn’t get to do much else. Twenty years after her death—at Jeanne d’Arc’s rehabilitation—Charles VII bestows the title of nobleman on Jeanne’s oldest brother, Jacques. “Esq.” appears beside some of the males in his bloodline, and that means “landowner”—a big step up from the farmers that were our first ancestors in the Loire Valley during the Hundred Years’ War. A decade later, Jacques’ youngest son, Ambroys, married a girl whose father’s title made him a knight. Fifteen years later, in 1482, the knighted Ambroys made some heroic moves at the Battle of Ferrara. He was declared a prince by Ferdinand of Naples. But the real news for our family came with his son, Bresson, who married a girl from a wealthy house of Florence. Her name was Francois de Menil, and my upstart relative saw an opportunity to obtain royal favor by asking his father-in-law to grant him that name…
The electronic clock outside still flashes DELAY as I carefully turn the page.
Francois de Menich has a bold, red box around her name and a purple diagonal line, connecting her to a sister, Margot. I’m trying to feel what my brother must’ve felt as he turned these pages and found we had ancestors just as venerable as anything those Van der Ebbs could serve up. It must have made James so proud to see we’d joined high society.
But it hadn’t. Instead it made him terrified. Why?
The sound of a text-jingle and a knock on the door wake me from my reverie. It’s back to make-believe.
The lights flash yellow and we take our marks. I stand before the open door of a beautiful estate. Inside is a crowd of guests in a high-ceilinged room. Their heads turn, all eyes on me. There comes a point in every performance when you just have to let go and trust your instincts, trust your character. Be bold—but don’t lose the humility of a girl who knows she must convince a star she’s got what it takes to win this war. That’s just the way Jeanne first approached Charles VII, the king in exile, not in awe—not with obeisance—but with heartfelt respect, convinced her mission was the right one.
The crowd parts as Craig emerges from the darkness. He makes his way to the threshold where I wait. We face each other. I smile, my lips tingle.
“Captain. I understand we have a war to win. I am Jeanne, the humble maid, reporting for duty.”
“I’m glad you’re here. I’ve got a puzzle I need help with.”
I enter the living room and see Brad between a man in a highly decorated military uniform and a girl in a crinoline dress with a funny knotted tail that makes her look like a desolate mermaid. Some of the girls in beautiful dresses I barely recognize from battle scenes. Rex is wearing a white tux and a bandage on his nose. Something on his lapel flashes beneath the hot lights. I can’t make it out, but when our eyes meet he turns and kisses a tall girl in a silver gown as he squeezes her butt.
The hunk from down under wants his payback.
The ceiling of the living room soars twenty feet overhead. I look up at the guests on the balcony. There she is, perched on the spiral stairs like a gleaming falcon in an aviary filled with potential prey: Catherine the Great. My feet feel as though they are being fastened to the marble floor, as if I’m not wearing pumps but giant ski boots and someone is slowly snapping the buckles. Jeanne’s advice (and my training) is kicking in.
Stand your ground, Jeanne.
I feel a grown-up coolness about Craig as he approaches—a simple reassurance that tells me I can trust him. He isn’t going to upstage me and steal the scene. He gives me a peck on the cheek.
“Mademoiselle d’Arc. We are meant for a future world.” The waltz that has been playing fades, gives way to a flute sonata. We ascend the spiral staircase.
“The past is behind us, but I sense you’re torn between two worlds,” I say and follow his gaze to Catherine as she raises her champagne flute to us.
“How wonderful to see you again,” Catherine says. She raises her hand and Craig gently kisses it as I steal a glance at the giant ruby that hangs from her long, beautiful neck. Catherine the Great is a queen, true to character.
“And who is this valorous ensign?” She looks down at me, and I do something that makes me realize my character really has taken over. I offer a gentle curtsy, a short bow.
“Je m’appelle Jeanne d’Arc, la Pucelle.”
She commends me in French for my bravery on the battlefield. I see an opportunity to outshine her. At the bottom of the stairs, a shaft of light fans out into a perfect oval from the high windows. I let my eyes lead and take Craig by the hand. He gets it, follows me into the light, coughs politely. I follow his gaze to a figure outside opening a sliding glass door.
It’s Eve in a flaming red dress. She’s got what looks like a candlestick in one hand.
“My parents were killed the week the war began,” he says. “My sister’s disappeared and is probably dead.” He points to a burly man who has a face like a bear. “You see that man? His name’s Bryson. He still thinks I trust him—but I know he’d gladly sell his mother to defeat me.” He sighs. “What some people will do to get ahead.”
Bryson’s got on a gray blazer with military decorations on one breast…and a gold insignia on a lapel.
I glance down to see two women between us step aside a little too neatly for it to be natural. Eve’s talking to another woman at the foot of the staircase. I see the wild rage in her face. She has a hand behind her back. Bryson takes his first step up the spiral stairs, but Craig’s attention is on Cate. I look out the enormous windows to the maze outside.
Bryson has rested his champagne flute on the brass handrail at the bottom of the staircase and makes his way toward us. A gold crossbow glitters on his lapel. His right hand’s disappeared below the handrail. I recognize him; tall, as strong as Rex, smarter, too; he was almost a love interest until I accidentally knocked him out in the second round. He’s a lefty. I can tell by the way Craig ignores him that what happens next will be a surprise to both of us, and I’ve got to be careful to get in all my lines and keep an eye on Cate.
He takes another step toward us. I carefully place my champagne flute on the handrail.
It’s got to be a knife. Francis couldn’t explain away an actress getting shot on the set, and Craig’s people would never allow him to be standing so close to action like that. I look down at the pockets on Craig’s tux and cringe because there’s no way with that glove-fit he’s carrying anything to defend us with…
Craig’s noticing Bryson now, and I can tell by the way he turns he’s going to be delivering a line to him. I don’t think Craig’s registering that Bryson’s got both hands behind his back as he takes the final step toward us. If he swings wide with his left it’s going to hit Craig, and then what? He’ll probably hold the knife low and bring it up with a quick thrust from the waist. I can feel the main camera closing in.
“Well, if it isn’t my fellow solider-in-arms,” Craig says. Bryson grimaces. His face looks like a clenched fist. Craig takes a sip of champagne with his right hand, then in a flash Bryson raises his left hand to my face. I already have my right forearm up to block it. I’m ready with a quick jab—but his hand stops an inch from my chin, unfurls. He isn’t holding a knife.
“A little gift for the warrior on the rise,” Bryson says, thinly. He holds up a note. Craig looks nonplussed.
Read it, Cease. What’ve you got to lose? There are only about ten million people out there waiting to watch you spill the beans on your past.
“It’s a riddle,” I say, my voice growing stronger with each word. I look at Bryson’s bearish face as if he’s a Capulet who had the temerity to crash a Montague party.
“Why not share it with everyone?” says Craig, brushing his chin with his thumb and forefinger. I read. It’s not Shakespeare. It’s Sophocles.
“What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” It wasn’t in the dialogue I’d been given. But I don’t miss a beat with the answer.
“A man,” I say, and stare down Bryson for what he is; a messenger from the dirty world. “In the morning, he’s just a baby crawling on all fours; at noon he’s grown up; in old age he walks with a cane.”
“Or a woman too, don’t you think?” Bryson says.
“We just can’t control our fate,” Craig chimes in. “No matter how hard we try.” He turns to face me. His eyes rove my lips. “You know that better than most, Jeanne.”
“Yes. But I have to confess, these days my faith is tested.” I give Craig a forlorn look and he smiles, positively beams; as if we’ve finally reached the podium. He takes my hand. “It feels as if, together, we can solve the last, great riddle that stands between our worlds.”
The main camera closes in on a silent crane. I kiss him softly on the lips. It feels as if we’re standing on a gentle cloud over a deserted beach. Craig presses deeply with a confidence, a cool passion I’ve never felt before. I feel his hand follow a tingling sensation that gently glides down my back as I say, “It’s a fate only the stars can fathom.” I look up to the open door on the first landing; a bedroom…I know where we’re headed, and I don’t blame Francis for showing what most of the world wants to see…I’m sick of fighting. I just want to fall in love.
We kiss again. I feel my chest expand, as if I’m a diver coming up for air. I press deeper with a cool hunger I know looks good on camera. He pulls back.
“Have you ever killed a friend you thought was an enemy?” Craig blurts out as I tug playfully at the onyx studs in his shirt. It’s an unscripted line, and that tells me he’s completed his required dialogue.
“He wanted me to. He couldn’t live another day in this world.”
I place a forearm on his ear and then gently draw it across his face; his lips, all that gorgeous brown, firm skin rubbing against my white arm…how opposites attract. Outside beside the hedgerow Susan eyes us and swings the candlestick into her open palm. I feel the bolt rise in my chest, pull back.
“Can’t you see what I’m becoming?” I murmur. “What we’re all becoming. These gods don’t want to see us fall in love. They just want to watch us make love. They just want to look on with sick envy.” I push him away, ascend the staircase and pass Cate with a defiant nod.
The cameras pan down to the crowd below, making room for Craig and Cate, who dance a waltz. The hem of her gown spins in gorgeous waves and that ruby glitters with each revolution like a shooting star. The rich, umber hues of her dress glitter, twirl. She stops and kisses Craig. It’s dignified—the way a Captain and a Princess would kiss after being introduced by their approving parents. Craig gives Stephanie a playful hug after Francis yells, “Cut.” I race back to my trailer, change into my jeans and a sweater, check my email. I open another Rumor Has It article my agent has sent.
Studio Balks, Francis Fumes
In God We Trust, but all others pay cash—at least that’s what the producers have informed renegade director Francis MacDonald after he requested a new line of credit for his wildly over-budget biopic featuring a new face, the saint-in-training, Cease de Menich. It turns out the division of NorthStar that backed his daring Two Clicks From Abu Ghraib has got a new bopper, and he wants to see results.
Lew Ericson has denied any new funding for the risky reality show until “our people” have had a chance to review its progress. This request may spell doom for the new messiah as Francis is notorious for not sharing his vision. RHI asked how far he’d go to protect his final cut. Francis responded, “I’ve got a great story here and I think they’ll be willing to wait.”
“He’s got until February 28th to turn in his completed project.”
Wake up Francis. It’s time to stop playing a little boy.
And then I check my email and see the note Nana has left. I’m to come home immediately. A detective has contacted her—“about a family matter.”
Wake up, Cease. It’s time to stop behaving like a lost, little girl.
The sun has left the cloistered courtyards of Tudor City and the house lights make confusing shadows on the oak dining-room table as I lay out the napkins. In the weeks after my brother’s funeral, I used to accidentally set an extra place at our table, and then over dinner there’d be a silence as we looked at where he used to sit; as if we didn’t yet accept my brother was dead, just late for dinner—and then Nana would talk in her soothing tones about another aspect of Jeanne’s real life that might inspire me. I’d play with my food and talk about my latest conquest on the battlefield, trying not to let her faith-filled questions drive me nuts.
I watch my Nana cross herself on the prie-dieu, lift her old legs up from that ancient wood. I go to my window overlooking First Avenue. I wish it would snow again. I look out to the silver monolith engulfed in the solemn light of the solstice. I remember the dream and the sound of Jeanne’s voice, how real it felt. I wish the clouds would part and I could hear her again. Jeanne d’ Arc would say that my brother is at peace and that everything had happened just the way she’d designed it from the beginning.
But this just isn’t that kind of story. My Nana’s the only one who understands where this story is really coming from. She lights the candles and takes her place at the head of the table, says the Lord’s Prayer in French and then looks to me, sans apprehension. Her mouth drops open after I devour the casserole and Brussels sprouts and go for seconds.
“There was a segment on the news about that boy from Mexico that Francis just hired. He’s quite a good-looking lunk, don’t you think?”
“He’s a hunk, Nana. Good-looking boys are hunks.”
We both try to avoid looking at the gold mesh screen; I’d placed the volume I took with me back in the case when Nana wasn’t looking and left the key in the lock. Nana’s swollen eyes tell me she’s been crying.
“Nana. Francis doesn’t know what’s really going on. He doesn’t know how these characters we play are connected—I don’t think he took any of the lines from James’ note.” She wipes her chin with a cloth napkin, but I just get that omniscient frown that tells me she can see exactly what’s going to happen next—or that she’s given up trying to find out.
“Just who the hell is writing this story of my life?” I demand. “Nana. If my character were alive, Jeanne would probably punch Francis out and dump his so-called masterpiece into a river.”
“A long line of strong girls,” she repeats. I follow her gaze to the empty place at our table. Yes, I am a strong girl, not the wounded, innocent waif who thought she didn’t deserve to be standing beside a rich girl like Eve or a perfect girl like Stephanie. I didn’t just get lucky. I was chosen. I was chosen because of my flaws. I was chosen because of all those secrets I’d been running from.
“Nana. OK—I get it. I was chosen for this role, and I don’t mean chosen as in I got a lucky break. This isn’t some sick, twisted conspiracy that I can blame on Francis or a god called fame. I was chosen to become Jeanne.” I place my open palms beside my empty plate. I look down strangely to see I’ve devoured my second helping.
“Well, I think that’s good to hear—a step in the right direction.” This isn’t Nana-speak but it doesn’t sound like her, either. Her trembling voice and those swollen eyes tell me she’s probably going through our bloodline and trying to find a way out of our past.
I try to find a place to begin. “I think—” but she just pushes back her chair and it makes a long screech on the wood floor. I jump up to help her and she pushes me away. I raise a finger, point at her chest.
“Don’t start talking about how it was his mental illness, Nana. My brother was fine until your sister sunk her claws in him.”
“I won’t,” she shouts. “I wasn’t going to say that. In fact, your brother was afraid of you. He told me so when you were away.”
I draw back in horror. How could she say such a big lie?
“Young lady. You have a problem with intimacy.” Nana sweeps her left hand across my chest as if she’s holding a sword. “No one can blame you for some of the things you’ve done because of your past.” She points over her shoulder to the bookcase. “He gave you secrets on the last night of his life and you still don’t understand them.”
She’s right. I don’t understand what my brother said on the last night of his life. But what we talked about was personal and I have no intention of sharing it…
She fights back a sob. “James de Menich wasn’t just giving you the secret of how to become a charismatic actor. He was helping you fulfill a mission that goes back all the way to the life of your character, Jeanne d’Arc.”
Nana looks exhausted, but those swollen eyes have ignited in a fiery glow—a look of fierce determination. I push my plate back and stand.
“Nana—I understand. I get it. I think Jeanne’s been trying to reach me. I thought I heard her voice. I know it sounds crazy.” I hope this will make Nana feel better, but she looks worse. Her chest beneath the flannel blouse begins to tremble. She reaches out for my shoulders and I grab her.
“Nana? What’s wrong?”
She pushes me away, begins to beat her breast with her withered fingers. “I should have told you. I should have stopped it.”
“That game.” Nana sits up, looks down at her plate strangely. “James was trying to warn you about something on the last night of his life.”
“Yes, he was,” I admit. “But it didn’t make any sense.”
Nana nods. “I have to lie down,” she says.
“Wait, Nana.” I pull her head to my chest. “Please let’s go over to the couch. I’ve got to confess.” She rises, slowly. I follow her and sit on the edge of the coffee table. I take off her slippers.
“You said James was afraid of me when I left? You mean, when I went out to California to film?” She nods once. It wasn’t hard to figure. Except for those two months I was in Century City playing a vampire, we’d never been apart.
“Nana,” I say, “I’ve never lied to you and I never will, but there’s more to it. There’s more to what he said, what we did—and I have to say it before we meet any outsiders.”
“What kind of more to it is there?”
“Nana. I just figured everything James told me about our past was make-believe. He needed a father. He desperately wanted to be one of those rich preppies like Phil. The only name he really cared about at the time was Van der Ebb.” Nana cringes. It’s a name she never wanted to hear again after we moved down here.
“Nana. You’re right. Playing Cease and Desist was more than just a theater game. When we played, we changed. It felt as if we sat on a seesaw and I watched the chemistry—that glorious elixir that flowed like some undiscovered energy—surge back and forth between us like a gorgeous wave…” I try to remember where this is going. “It was chemical; it was mercurial.” I bow my head and feel the shame. “Neither of us wanted it to end. We realized we’d found something that could get us noticed. But I should’ve seen what it was doing to him. I should’ve seen that he actually thought he was becoming some of these people…”
“What sort of things did you do? I mean besides bringing a girl over here and doing God-knows-what to her.”
“Well. We had a couple of what you could call uninvited sleepovers.”
“The Whitney. James fell in love with that gorgeous olive-colored Italian chaise they have downstairs. Do you know the one?” I try to sound the way I did when I explained how I tried to help my brother find a boyfriend, tried to play the lovesick vampire sister. But Nana won’t stop with that grimace. “I dared him to hide from the guards and sleep on the chaise. He was able to bypass the security system—it was the night we became secret agents.”
Nana doesn’t look as if she wants to hear about the night we became secret agents. “We also crashed a party at the Metropolitan,” I admit. “It was thrown by the Van der Ebbs.” Her look of reprobation freezes me and I don’t continue. But Nana would’ve appreciated how James and I got our payback by becoming Serena and Phil for one unforgettable night. I take a knee and face her.
“I hurt him, didn’t I?”
“You loved your brother with all your heart,” she says. “But you’ll never be able to get close to a man until you share emotions like that.”
“When I first saw those portals Francis created for us to time-travel, I wanted to go back to a night when James was alive and tell him how much I loved him.” I look out the window to the first long flakes of snow as they glide toward the giant, silver monolith across First Avenue. The doorbell rings. The scene arrives. Nana turns the pages as I stand behind her. I’ve been paired with Great Cate. It’s not a confrontation. We’re working together to save Craig. I’m scared, but I let out a sigh of relief because I know this keeps me in the game, allows me to strategize.
I look down at the new rules Francis has included and remember that look on Stephanie’s face as she took out those three men in the alley.
Cool, calculating…almost serene…I’ve seen that look before.
Then I take a deep breath and say what I should’ve said as soon as I got home. “Nana. Stephanie’s played the game, too. Francis knows this. He showed me how she transforms before a scene.”
Nana nods. “Is she the only other one?”
“Yes, unless…can boys play it, too?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” Nana says, pressing her lips with her forefinger. “But in your bloodline the gift was only passed down through girls.”
“How can I beat her?” I ask.
“You can’t. At least, not until you reveal your secret.”
“The secret you were born to share with the world.”
“Nann-naa,” I plead and I know I sound like a child, as if I’m protesting some new outfit she demands I try on. She shakes her head, and just when I expect more hand-wringing she lets out a mirth-filled laugh. “I remember how you both behaved, after you got out of the hospital and I took you east. You two were connected at the hip…I don’t think there was a sentence James started that you couldn’t finish. I used to untangle your limbs from the same bed and think, this is the kind of love God bestows on all those wounded children whose parents have wronged them. But I knew that wasn’t really true…or at least I knew for sure that although you had the gift, it would be a curse until you looked down your bloodline and stood up for all those others who failed in their mission.”
“What mission?” I plead. “We’re just a family—a couple of kids and a sick mom—not crusaders.” Her eyes look tired but still have that glow that tells me she’s never going to give up on me until I see the light. “I think I have inherited something special. But what can I do with it? Am I supposed to win or just quit?”
She holds up the key to the bookcase. I stand and unlock it, take out the tome I’d paged through this morning on the set.
“What does it all mean?” I demand. I hold it up over the dining-room table like some priest might hold the bible at a mass. “Other girls in my bloodline played the game. Only a handful of them ever made history. So what? Why?”
“Without a cause the game is unjust,” Nana says, defiantly. I can tell she’s translating here, probably from one of those books on the saints or French philosophers she keeps by her bed; but it makes no sense. She points to the worn leather binding—the gold-embossed de Menich Coat of Arms on the cover; a lance propped up beside a long quill, and beneath the quill, etched in faded gold, our family motto:
Noblese oblige…I can’t make out the rest of it. I remember the way James used to say it—reverently, the way Father Laurence, the priest in Juliet used to speak on stage, after he’d hatched a plan to save my dear Romeo from banishment. I want to jump into Nana’s bed and have her explain everything over cups of hot chocolate, but the look she gives me tells me that time has passed.
“You must study it alone, child. You must reach your own conclusion.” This doesn’t come out cryptic at all. Nana says it the same way she reminds me to turn the lights off and check the stove before going to bed. She turns and plods down the hall.
I follow. At her bedroom door, she turns and looks as if she’s just emerged from a storm, a Janus-like tug-of-war between apprehension and outright fear. “You asked me once why your character gave a confession. You asked me why Jeanne d’Arc was given an auto-da-fe. You must read her words before it’s too late. Good night, my humble maid.” She speaks as if in a dream and shuts the door.
I make some green tea and jump into bed with the first volume of the de Menich genealogy in my lap. I turn the pages—hand-sewn and flecked with gold, heavy as the door my Nana tried to close and lock after my brother died. The faded ink points at me like a desperate, accusing finger. Nana’s tucked another ribbon between the pages; this one azure. I recognize a name in the margin—Etienne Fierbois—beside the wax stamp inscribed in Latin and French. He was instrumental in providing to the Holy See all the documentation that cleared the way for Jeanne’s beatification. I’d read something about him in the research she’d given me—his family, a great, great, great, great…(OK. I really don’t know how far back) uncle had testified to Jeanne’s character at her rehabilitation. Etienne was born in 1940. He was the bishop who’d given Nana the prie-dieu. There are hand-scrawled notes from the genealogists who’d done the research; there must’ve been at least one for each generation who had confirmed the names were real, the dates accurate. Their annotations are all in French and the lines they drew are easy enough to decipher. The lines and boxes that cascade down each page look like every genealogy I’ve ever seen. Vertical lines are descendants; horizontal lines immediate family.
I pull at my pillow, shift my wounded thigh, and study the slow proliferation of my bloodline across Europe. I open to another bookmark, this one in purple; almost three hundred years later, the marriage of Sophie and Peter III. The bishop Fierbois had been the first to discover the d’Arc family relation to the royal house of Russia. Royal houses across Europe were inter-related by arranged marriages for political reasons. It’s no surprise that our bloodline was caught up in all the strategizing. Some biographers even believe Jeanne d’Arc was the love child of a Bavarian prince.
But that didn’t seem to interest my brother. The pattern that caught his eye are my ancestors—most of them girls—who died young. He’d scribbled notes in the margins. Two generations after Jeanne died, new symbols in fresh ink appear in the pages; a cross with a circle beside each girl’s name—and a line in purple ink connecting each cross to another member of the immediate family. My brother had discovered a pattern that repeated itself for the last four hundred-years—a long line of strong girls…a long line…the words echo in my head…but the pattern—the years and the ages of the girls—echo even deeper.
I was meant to play her. I wasn’t just chosen, like a wannabe who catches a big break. Maybe the whole show is stupid, but I was meant to play Jeanne d’Arc. I’m meant to be here, and this makes me think about Stephanie in a different light. She’s not so perfect after all, or I’m not so flawed.
“De Menich,” I repeat proudly to the mirror as I study my bruises. Just call me one of a long line of strong girls. The names in my head, all those letters spinning endlessly, stop as the last letter falls into place. I trace the short lines that connect each girl to another member of her immediate family. A brother, a sister, a father a mother; and I understand; this x-factor in our blood may be a gene, but it takes two people…two opposites, maybe, to spark a connection and activate it. I wasn’t the first to play the game, but the lines aren’t so long for many of the girls. Many had died before their fourteenth birthday. Those were the days when a cut on your hand could kill you, my brother had joked when I first told him I was up for a part playing a medieval saint. But it isn’t so funny as I turn the pages and see a big X over many of the girls—not the usual box with the hyphen between the dates of birth and death.
“This is what happens to those who play the game without a cause. Jeanne d’Arc had a cause. I just want to be famous,” is scribbled in the margin on the page where our names appear. James wasn’t searching for our aristocratic roots. He’d found all the others who had played a game we stumbled on, thought we’d invented. I’d thought the reason my brother quit the stage was because of the humiliation he got from Phil, but that wasn’t it at all. He was scared. He was scared at what the game had done to our ancestors…
…and what it was doing to us…He was trying to warn me…that was the point of the fight on the last night of his life.
It feels as if that same mysterious wind that first opened the secrets of these pages to me is turning them now. I raise the book to my lamp and try to find some clue that it is a recent forgery, probably by some charlatan who duped my mother, tricked her into thinking it contained a rare incantation that would restore her lost youth, give her that irresistible presence my brother and I had found in a game.
It’s two in the morning but I’m as wide-eyed reading this as when a new scene arrives. I turn another page, remember the look of envy on my mother’s face (it grew to pure loathing) as she watched the chemistry we shared. She hated us for it. She tried to take my role and squeeze the gift right out of my brother; I remember the look she used to give me when I caught them together in his room. A look that told me there was no part for a little girl in the Greek drama they were rehearsing.
Arrows are drawn beside the young girls—arrows my brother had taken an intense interest in. A footnote on the bottom of a page in the year 1631 has a sequence of vowels that I repeat in my head. I remember the first time we played the game, how James had taken his thumbs and made those two revolutions on my temple. It felt real; it had an initiatory quality and made me feel like a locked safe that the boy who knew me better than anyone else in the world was trying to crack…with just the right combination I’d suddenly become that strong, irresistible girl…
A gust of wind off the East River buffers my window and I jump in the bed. I carefully study the boxes containing what appears to be another pattern: although few of the strong girls in the first two hundred years after Jeanne’s death had lived beyond the age of fourteen, the ones who had survived made history. How? Why?
I turn the pages slowly, stop at the year 1730. Another encircled cross, but also an asterisk, beside which is a name I can barely make out, but when I do, I let out a heavy sigh. I recognize it: Avril. Some of the girls who survived hadn’t been just strong—they’d been ruthless. I remember reading of the Romanov family. Nana had collected their history when she learned that I’d be going up against Catherine the Great. (Had she already found a secret in these pages?) I remember the name of one who’d survived by killing her own…
I wave my hand across my face as if I’m trying to swat a fly. I take a break, look at my scene with Cate, but my eyes are drawn back to the dusty tome.
James wasn’t doing all this research for himself, he was doing it for you. Why? Maybe he knew there was something in these strange relations that could help you beat Cate.
Is that all I can think about? Winning?
I feel the shame. Why? Isn’t that what James and Nana had trained me for since the day we arrived in New York City? My head gets heavy. I search for lights on the darkened monolith outside my window; all those translators who might know the word that stands for what I’m feeling. I’m special, but special in a way that will not necessarily bring fame and fortune; I’ve been chosen, but not the way I felt chosen when my agent called to announce I’d gotten this part. I feel the word slowly rising in my chest.
It feels like something I just spit out onto the bed—a black mass of ugly phlegm that’s been clogging the bottom of my lungs.
Something passed down your bloodline…what happens to a gift when it gets abused…
I think about what my mother’s done…her ambition—how she hadn’t inherited the gift and that’s why she became angry, resentful, when she saw the magic her children created..
That’s what happens to a gift when it’s abused…
I look down and see I’ve scribbled “Romanov” in the margin with a pencil. The year at the top of the page is 1914, much later than the reign of Catherine. Her progeny are all Romanovs, a royal house headed for a big wake-up call, with a revolution only three years away. A box beneath the boy’s name has his date of birth as 1899. He’s a child of fifteen. He has a sister named Alesandra. I know why these pages are open. She did something to him. Alesandra harmed her brother in some way… They’d played the game and things got out of hand.
I close my eyes and see what Nana was trying to get me to see. I can see two locked doors. Behind one stands my character, the girl who shares my dreams and my blood: Jeanne d’Arc. Behind the other is the podium where the last girl will take her stand. It’s an easy choice, I think. I stand with my character. But I’ve thought that before, like when I told Francis I was quitting when my brother’s words first appeared in the dialogue. And then he handed me the monologue of me being the last girl standing and I felt it—ambition, rising in my chest like a glorious bird of prey… deeper than that— it wasn’t just ambition, but hunger, and not just the hunger I faked when I played a vampire, but something deeper…I’ve felt it before. I’ve seen it before. It’s the hunger I saw on Great Cate’s face as she took out those men in the alley with her dagger—the look she gave me when we met outside Molly’s trailer.
You’ve seen it before, Cease. In the mirror…the hunger you felt on the last night of your brother’s life.
Nana promised me she’d sleep in but I’m relieved to hear her feet softly plod down the hall as I put on my jeans, Uggs, and a threadbare, blue sweater. It’s five a.m., my usual call time. She’s rummaging in the cabinets for the egg poacher. She puts the kettle on for tea.
“Nana. I’m not hungry.”
“Just two eggs,” she pleads. The dawn is pink over the silver monolith. The cloisters are still dark. My cheek’s still swollen.
She goes to say her morning prayers on the prie-dieu as I bring her mint tea to the table. I study her profile as she bows before the dawn light creeping over the cloisters. What does she think about when she prays? My cheek twitches as I study her somber face. I kiss the top of her head. She smiles and turns to me with a look of contentment that’s a welcome relief after last night.
“It’s time to stand up to your past, young lady.” She looks omniscient.
“Yeah. I guess. This game James taught me, other people in my bloodline had played, too. It made us strong…” and then after a pause that feels unbearable, I add, “it empowers, but it’s dangerous, too.”
Nana nods solemnly, taps her extended fingers together a few inches over her red, leather bible. She does this whenever she strategizes, and as I look down at her I’m forced to remind myself, when it comes to winning, Nana’s as great a strategist as my brother was. She shifts her knees and places her hand in mine. I want to confess the way I feel. I want to tell her I loved my brother with all my heart but I used him, too. I follow her gaze to the Meissen and the Delft china that sit on the windowsill beside her roll-top desk.
There’s no time for small talk. My tablet jingles, which that tells me Yousef is arriving downstairs. “Nana. I understand what you’re trying to get me to see. I saw it in our genealogy. I just don’t know how I can be on the right side of the line when the time comes.” I fish through my duffel to make sure I’ve packed the almonds Nana told me to munch on between takes. “Some people who played this game became famous and changed the world. But others died young and painfully. Why?”
Nana’s face is an obstinate mask. “I tried to explain…that without a purpose, the game you played is dangerous.”
“What do you mean by purpose, Nana?” I want to win, and despite all this weirdness in our past there’s a secret in these pages that can help me. “What do I need?”
“You need a mission, a cause…” Her lips tremble as she says, “Cause celebre…”
“Like winning,” I say proudly. “That’s what I want.”
“No. Like having a mission—uniting France, or women’s suffrage, or leading a great nation. Not fame. The only thing fame does is make you hungry for more fame. This need to devour your own—” She pauses.
“Flesh and blood—Why don’t you say it, Nana? Because that’s what I was thinking as I turned the pages—that’s what I can’t stop thinking about. It’s been a gift to many—but to some, it’s a curse.”
I grit my teeth, my jaw flexes, but I don’t know how to begin. I turn back to the kitchen, wishing the teakettle would whistle or the doorbell ring. I’m angry that she thinks I’m the only one who should be confessing. Nana gives her all-knowing smile that tells me she knows exactly what I’m thinking. She rises slowly, turns to me and says, “Tell me, if you wanted to confess to me or the ten million people you might be called to confess to, how would you begin?”
“You mean deliver an auto-da-fe? The way Jeanne did before they killed her?” Nana nods. I envision a circle of light surrounding Nana, as if she’s something precious that needs to be protected and I’m on the outside trying to find a way to break through without destroying her soft aura.
“I am Jeanne d’Arc. I’m descended from a long line of strong girls, and I stand before you today ready to die for my cause.” I stop…
No. That’s the speech an actress would give, a girl who’s just trying to play a character. It won’t get me on the podium…
I step back. “Do you know what I really want to tell the world? What I really want to tell all those girls and boys who’ve written me online to confess they don’t have a clue about love or sex? I’d say we live in an age of great tragedy—in an age of curses—curses that outlive the people who started them, because that’s what tragedy is, not just all those bad things that happen to decent people—it’s about something that’s so heinous it’s visited upon their children.” Nana steals a glance at her bible.
“History happens over and over until you get it right,” I say.
“What does that mean?” she asks.
“It means young people have it tough these days—tougher than most grown-ups could ever imagine.” I look at her face and envy how she can just kneel on that stupid pew and think she’s got all the answers, as if she’s not just as guilty as I am over what happened to our family. Tragedy isn’t just about all those bad things that happen to decent people—it’s about wanting someone so badly you don’t really care about them at all. It’s about understanding that if you don’t stand up to a curse, you’ll wind up passing it along…It’s about looking back on your past and seeing there were others who did the same thing, over and over…The buzzer sounds. Yousef is waiting.
“What are you so afraid of, Nana? That our secrets might destroy all those silly prayers—”
She’s on her feet. She passes me with a wild, angry look, as dread-filled as she gave the morning the bookcase lay open and all our family secrets were out fluttering in the ghostly breeze. I give her my mean look—my eyes like lasers and repeat what she said to me. “I’m never going to be free until I confess—”
“No,” Nana shouts. Her face is a giant stop sign of fear.
“No? What?” I take a step toward her. “What’s your problem? Maybe that’s what Jeanne wants me to do. Maybe we’ll never be free of this curse until I stand up and…” Tears are falling down her wrinkled cheeks. I suddenly need a hug and my Nana’s never denied me, but when I take a step into her arms she pushes me away.
“It wasn’t his therapist and it wasn’t the Van der Ebbs. It was you,” Nana shouts.
“What—do you mean me? It was your sister,” I roar. “What are you so afraid of, Nana? What are you really praying for? Me to win, or for me to come crashing down the way James did?” She bows her head. I grab the bag I’ve prepared and head to the door. I turn back and say, “You knew. You knew what your sister was doing to him. It’s all right there in all those crosses of dead children back down through the centuries. Your sister tried to play the game with James and realized she didn’t have the gift, and then she watched us, saw the magic we created and got resentful, so resentful she forced herself on him. Because that’s what the game does, doesn’t it? It’s not just a game. It’s a drug. A drug some people just can’t get enough of…that’s the side-effect no one wants to talk about.”
I want to stop and tell her I’ll quit. I want to drop the bag and head into her arms…but the names of my ancestors are spinning in my head—their accusing fingers will never stop pointing, their drowned voices will never stop calling until I stand up to my past, and the only way I can do that is to face the make-believe that is to come. Being forced to make love to Brad or Craig with the world watching would be easier than this. Being chopped to bits on the set by Eve or Stephanie, I’d welcome right now.
I have no one left to turn to except my character.
We’re in the parking lot of the Byrne Arena, a sports stadium in the Meadowlands. Francis stands beside a dirty mound of snow shaped like a giant coffin. He’s talking to Esme, the social worker. There’s a man beside him I’ve never seen before.
When Nana said Esme had called last week, I thought she wasn’t the right character to appear in our family drama. But I’m wrong; after all, every tragedy needs an Esme—some messenger who can listen to the powers that be and then return to tell the tragic hero she’s in deep shit. Oedipus had his soothsayer. Juliet had her wet nurse. I’ve got a social worker who’s talking to Francis and that man who’s probably the detective Nana said had called. He’s got the same square jaw as the man who confiscated my electronic devices, only this guy’s shorter.
I look down at my phone and see Nana’s called three times and hung up three times, without leaving a message. Three times. For a family that has lived the tragedies and probed the depths of the human condition, we in the House of de Menich sure have a hard time talking about our real feelings. I call her back and hang up when she answers.
I’m sorry. Jeanne, if you’re out there. Please. I can’t lose my Nana. She’s all I have left.
I look down at the scene the production assistant has just handed me after knocking on my door.
Jeanne is court-martialed for killing one of her own soldiers; a wounded boy she found on the battlefield.
I don’t have anything to hide. I say, “Come in” when I hear the knock.
Esmeralda introduces herself. “You can call me Esme, all my friends do.” She’s got a big smile and a steady gaze, the same overly caring look the first social worker had after I woke up in the hospital in California. “I just wanted to check in with you and see how you’re getting along.” It comes out pretty phony, but I offer Esme my chair and take a seat on the bed. She opens her metal clipboard. She scans the objects on my bed and desk in a guarded, professional way. I feel a lump in my throat. She riffles through papers on her lap and I think of Jeanne’s interrogators—all the tricks they used while they questioned the humble maid about the source of her power.
“I’m so sorry about what happened to your brother.”
I nod. “Is that what you were talking to Francis about?” I figure Esme will grill me about the missing girl, Cherise—and in a few minutes the detective will appear and say something like, we need you to make a statement down at the station with your Nana.
But Esme just rests her hands on her thighs in a disarming way. “Yes. Francis and I have been working together to help understand how you’ve been feeling since your brother died.”
“You want to know what happened to that girl we had over, don’t you?”
I can tell she’s stalling. “Esme. Nothing happened to that girl. Don’t you think it’s a little odd that her visit was over four months ago and only now she’s being reported missing?”
“Well…yes…but that’s not the reason I stopped—”
“Is Francis trying to get you to believe she’s been missing all this time and no one reported it until now?” I steal a glance at her clipboard as Esme steals a glance at the photo of Nana and James I keep on my makeshift bookshelf.
“Sounds like someone’s been trying to generate publicity for his reality show,” I say.
“Yes. Well, the detective first got the call from one of Francis’ production assistants,” Esme says. She pulls a paper from her stack, studies it as she says, “This…Cherise was one of your brother’s friends?”
Friends?? Cherise was a total pig who was drunk and…but I can’t say any of that, not unless I want to leave all this make-believe and spend some time in a real jail.
“She wasn’t a friend, and if she’s missing it’s not because of anything we did. My brother’s been dead for four months.”
“She?” Esme asks.
“The girl. Cherise. The one who’s missing. That’s who…”
“Well, yes. I had heard about her but that’s not rea—”
I’m not listening. I’m seeing that night again. I’m feeling all the hurt.
“Cease. Let’s just take a big breath together, OK? I’m here to talk to you about James, your brother. I’m sorry—”
“What does this have to do with my brother?”
“I understand you were close.”
“So what?” I jerk my head back and my swollen cheek stings. “The first social worker said that was normal, given the situation.”
“Given the situation,” Esme repeats, and takes another big breath. “Yes. I understand there was a question of competency regarding your mother.”
Competency? She raped my brother and tried to kill me…what was the question?
Esme smiles. “Cease, have you ever just stopped and acknowledged that smart as you are and strong as you are, you just can’t take this kind of heartache alone?”
“I have my Nana,” I say, trying to sound confident.
“Well, you can always come and talk to me. But I do have to inform you that a detective has called me and asked about your relationship with your brother.” There’s a spot on the floor of the trailer beside the space heater I fix my gaze on—actually I grab it with my eyes as if it’s a rope tied to a tree on the edge of a cliff I’m hanging off.
“So what? You work for the police, Miss Esme?”
“No. If talking about him makes you feel uneasy, I’ll stop. We’re only interested in what you might be feeling right now.”
“Thank you.” The spot on the floor is slipping from my gaze as I try to focus on what Esme is trying to tell me.
If she didn’t want to know about the girl, then who was she asking about?
I take off my bean boots and feel under the bed for my plastic Birkenstocks. Esme stands and faces me. “Cease. I know you’re busy preparing, but there’s just one other thing we need to discuss. It’s probably nothing,” she says in a disarming way I know is phony. “But I happened to notice some of the information that the social worker from California sent to me….”
She sits back down, opens the metal case. “Here. On the forms from your hospital stay—” she holds up my admission form “—and here, the application you completed after getting this part, are different.” She holds up the paperwork. MacDonald Productions. Cease de Menich DOB: 3/18/01. Esme takes her pen and looks down at a yellow legal pad. “When is your date of birth?”
“This says March 18th. Is that your signature?”
Any idea why you might’ve put that date?” It’s not really a question, more like a statement, and then Esme takes out a manila envelope from the bottom of her metal case. She places it on her lap. Her thumb and forefinger nervously press the metal clasp as her face changes, from hopeful to fearful.
“That was my brother’s date of birth,” I say. It comes out so monotone it sounds like my tablet is talking, telling me the date or reminding me about a call. Should I tell Esme it was an accident? Should I give her some of the gung-ho Cinderella story I gave to the co-executive producer who interrogated me before my final callback? Tell her that I made a promise to my brother before he died, a promise that I’d use everything he taught me to be the last girl standing—all those Hollywood promises a wannabe gives—all the lies and the crap that people say when they run from the truth? I’d tasted a drug called fame and I wanted more…I’m not special, or strong, or chosen. I’m no different from any other ambitious girl who’s stood toe-to-toe with fame.
“I took my brother’s birth date the same way I wore his sweaters, slept in his bed. It made me feel that I was fulfilling some promise that I’d made on the last night of his life.” It comes out less phony than what I’d told others, and I can tell by the way Esme raises her pen and holds it over the legal pad that she’s not really buying.
“What kind of promise was that?” It’s then I know what the manila envelope contains. My brother’s autopsy. It clearly shows his date of birth. It also contains photographs the coroner took of the bruises on his face and neck, injuries that could not have been sustained from the rope he put round his neck.
“I never harmed that girl,” I say. “But I regret some of the things I said to James on the last night of his life.” Esme hands me a tissue she’s taken from a plastic pack in the outer pocket of her thick, alpaca coat.
An hour later I dry my tears, watch Esme walk past the huddle of technicians who are assembling tracks for the main camera. She turns and gives me a solemn wave before getting into her car and crossing over into the real world.
Hurry up and wait. No sooner do we set up for a scene in the Meadowlands, when Francis breaks camp and we all head into Manhattan. The morning light through the elevated train tracks makes dramatic shadows against the cobblestone streets of the meatpacking district, the Lower West Side. The electronic billboard flashes DELAY. Maybe the producers are following Francis. Maybe they’ve already put him over the edge, because the scenes he’s shooting no longer have any rules or logic at all. Whatever plot he had is gone; we’re just a bunch of teenagers fucking and clawing our way to the top, and maybe that’s what Francis wants—because that certainly feels like real life.
I look down at my studio account and see I’ve got another three thousand emails. This doesn’t make me feel like a young star on the rise. It makes me terrified. If I want to be free of this curse, I have to tell them all who I really am and what I’ve done. The production assistant approaches with the final edits of my scene with Catherine the Great.
Time: The present. Place: Lower Manhattan.
I chuckle. Go figure, even when we were hundreds of years in the past it felt like the here and now to me. Catherine and I are in a safe house debating who the best match for Craig would be. Craig’s choice will determine the fate of the earth. It doesn’t say only one of us will be moving on, but I’ve got a make-or-break feeling with each word. I study the dialogue and feel my training kick in. The scene has no weapons per se; but anyone with stage training would know these words will be our rapiers, and I feel proud because I may not be as strong or as beautiful as Stephanie, but on stage I can match her and let the sparks fly…I hear my name being called into makeup.
I remind myself what I was taught at Juilliard. I remember the choices I made to make my Juliet take center stage. There comes a point in every tragedy when the hero accepts her fate, when she knows she’s going to die and what she does next will define her as something more than human. That means if I nail this scene—if I take a risk, share what my character really stands for—I could knock Stephanie out.
Stephanie’s just walked into Claude’s trailer. How long has she known she possessed the gift? How did she find out? What family member activated it in her? It was probably through some mystical ceremony the Coombs family has practiced for centuries. Maybe they belonged to a secret society even more elite than most of our neighbors on the Upper East Side.
Stop it, Cease. Have you ever considered all the pain you’ve been through was there for a reason?…have you ever considered that your fans are writing you because they see all their flaws in you and need to know how you’ll overcome them?
I call Nana. She answers on the third ring. “Nana? I’m sorry I shouted this morning. There was no way you could’ve stopped what she—your…my mother, was doing…” I tug at my baggy, crimson sweater. “I think my character’s trying to help me.” I pick up Esme’s card and put it in my tablet’s plastic case.
“Jeanne just came by and said hello,” I say.
“You said, ‘Jeanne’.”
“I meant Esme. The social worker.”
“What do you think she’s trying to tell you?”
“No. Jeanne.” Nana’s nervous laugh puts me at ease.
“I guess I need to be forgiven too…” my voice trails off. I’d carefully arranged this scene by beats, and every time I try to piece together what I need to say about James, that last night, our fight, I get lost. I feel the scapular grow warm. I touch the leather strap between my thumb and forefinger…I pull it out from the folds of my V-neck sweater, hold it up and try to read the Latin inscription on the small rectangle that looks like it’s been preserved by some supernatural power. My chest grows warm and I realize I forgot to turn on the space heater crouched in the corner—the trailer’s felt so cold since Esme left.
“Where did the scapular you gave me come from?”
“Where Jeanne lived? Where she was born?”
There’s a long pause before Nana says, “Yes.”
“She wore it, didn’t she?”
No answer. I know why my Nana’s backing off from all this stuff about our family tree, but I have to know what happened when my ancestors played the game I find so alluring, so scary. I look down at my dialogue with Great Cate. She refers to a former boyfriend by name—Jacques.
“Where did you get it Nana? I need to know.” I don’t want another fight about the past. I need to put all those lines I traced through the ages into the proper equation.
“Well. No one knows where it really came from.”
Jeanne’s older brother, Jacquermin, preserved her things after she was put to the stake. He must’ve given them to his wife, because he died before Jeanne could be rehabilitated twenty years later. I close my eyes and see the faces of all my ancestors—yes, that’s what they are. And saying that gives me the most empowering feeling. My chest tightens, but a voice of doubt whispers in my ear.
You don’t believe all that crap, Cease.
But I shake it off.
I look down at my scene with Cate and think maybe she’s not so perfect, or I’m not so flawed. On the surface it’s just dialogue about our experiences with young men, what we like in a boy. But there’s a saying in my business that goes, the scene’s never about what it says the scene’s about—and I can feel a big reversal fast approaching. That peripeteia Craig couldn’t pronounce back in his trailer is coming, and I have a clue on how to handle it.
“Nana. I know it sounds crazy. This genealogy isn’t just about my past. I think there’s something in here that might help me win. I thought James was crazy when he tried to explain that to me. But how else can you explain some of the things that have happened? How do you explain my being cast as a character I’m related to? You can’t. How do you explain all that dialogue no writer could possibly know—and Francis doesn’t know…” I look out the window to a giant spike of ice hanging from the elevated train tracks. I hear a long sigh.
“Be careful, my child. You have no idea what you’re getting into.” There’s a long beat.
I take a deep breath. “Stephanie’s got the gift, too. I think I have to decide whether I want to win or whether I want to share my character’s secrets with the world.”
“Cease. Open the bag and take out what I left for you.” I unzip the bag I’d put beneath my desk and find one of the genealogies next to a Ziploc of almonds and two brownies she must’ve snuck in as well.
“Go to the purple bookmark.” I look down at a purple ribbon. Nana must’ve taken it from her sewing kit and placed it there while I was in the shower. “Place your right index finger on the name of Misha in the middle of the page.” The year at the top of the page says 1914. The Russian Revolution is three years away. A box beneath the boy’s name has his date of birth as 1899. He’s a child of fifteen. I do as Nana instructs. I press my finger gently down and it feels as if I’ve stepped into one of the portals Francis constructed to take me back in time. I see a beautiful boy’s face, all dimples and wonder. I look down and follow the foreboding dotted line diagonally up to another box, labeled Alexandra, twelve years old.
“Were they cousins?”
“Yes. What else do you see?”
I press my finger against her name and see high overhead a billowing blue cloud…no, a curtain in a high-ceilinged room, French doors opened to a giant, mirrored ballroom in a winter palace. Misha stands in the middle of the ballroom with his hands over his eyes. Alexandra is behind the giant blue curtain, peeking. They’re playing a game. They’re playing the game, and then I feel my finger grow warm…pressing down…harder and harder as if someone behind me is pressing my finger down into a fiery Braille alphabet of intrigue and hate.
But it’s just a game.
“What do you see, child?”
“I can’t…it’s so…” I see the girl leave the hidden confines of the vestibule, advance slowly to the boy. It’s just a game of hide-and-seek…he’s counting…I can hear the words…I understand the words…he’s speaking French…they must be the royal family…Alexandra advances and stands behind the boy. He’s wearing a red hunting jacket. She slowly raises his arm to the gilded light of a chandelier…I can’t see what
Alexandra’s wearing. I’m seeing everything though her eyes. Misha’s turning…I can see his crimson Fauntleroy suit, satin pants…buckled shoes…but Alexandra’s turning with him…raising her hands over his face…she’s got something in her hands…maybe a handkerchief…no. It’s a cord. Her hands are coming down over his neck with the cord…she’s pulling and Misha’s face is turning…his hands are up to his throat and he’s pulling, but to no avail…his body goes limp in her arms…
I gasp, want to cry Nana…but the worst is yet to come. I see Alexandra’s face as the boy falls limply to the ground. That look I’ve seen before…deeper than hate…deeper than rage…as if hate and rage have been compressed into a small gem-like flame…pure evil—the look I saw on Catherine’s face as she took out those men in the alley.
“Why, Nana? Why’d she do it?”
“Just turn the page back.” I do and at the top I see the name that makes my chest go cold. I look to the heater that’s coming to life…it was her…and then I remember where I first saw that expression. It was my mother the moment she turned the wheel. It was that look of pure envy she’d managed to hide with a cold, jealous rage, and then I understand what my Nana needs me to see, why she had to go back a hundred years. She can’t bare to share what she thinks happened between James and me.
“Nana. I swear. I’d never…”
But her tone is unforgiving as she says, “The mother didn’t want to share her throne…” I hear a sob and then a brief silence. “That’s what happens to those who played the game without a cause…those who played for their own aggrandizement…”
“Listen, Nana. I’ll quit now if you want me to. But I’ve got to say something first, and after I’m done if you think I’m evil or crazy I’ll tell Francis to—” I swallow hard, because I know my Nana doesn’t want me to swear… “I’ll quit.” I drop my head to my chest. The air in my trailer is suddenly stifling…two quick breaths…I try to stop myself from hyperventilating. How can that little space heater be making this room so hot…
“Whoever or whatever is doing this isn’t just fucking with my head, trying to make me look stupid or wanting to see me strip down and lose it with a hot boy while the whole world watches. There are larger things at stake—I heard Jeanne’s voice in a dream, and the day I went up against Eve, I heard Jeanne tell me not to fight…to stand my ground. I think she’s trying to get me to see that if I walk now, I’ll become just like—” I can’t say it…Nana must sense this… “You did everything you could to help us both…”
I close my eyes and see the scene I saw during my free fall—a stage bathed in light where I am to give my final speech, only I understand that it’s a real stage—the one constructed by the British on the morning Jeanne was put to death. At my feet are cords of wood and kindling.
“This isn’t about me being the last girl standing, Nana. It’s about me standing up to who I really am.”
“Yes, my precious. I think you’re right. But you understand the risks? That girl Alexandra and her cousin Misha…this is what happens…this is what may be called a curse…unless you can learn to listen to your character, the game becomes something it’s not supposed to be…the same way some of us…”
Nana stops. I can fill in the blanks. I close my eyes and see that boy, that white face, those rosy cheeks turning vermillion…that smile on Alexandra I’d seen before.
“Yes.” I feel like I’m repeating a catechism. “They failed because they weren’t celebrating a cause…they were eager, ambitious, filled with vain…” In other words—they were just like me.
“Nana. I know if want to heal, I need a cause. I need a motivation.” I swivel back and forth in my chair as restive as I get before auditions. “But there just aren’t any big causes I can think of. I can’t unite a country the way Jeanne did. I can’t save the world. I’m just sixteen.”
“Don’t think so big, my child. What do you think girls your age need to hear?”
I am Nana’s child. I will always be her child. I remember the way Francis called me a girl when he said, ‘You just might be the right girl.’ How angry it made me feel after everything I’d been through. I may not be a woman. But I’m not a girl. Does Craig think I’m a girl? And then it hits me. Square on the head, as if the clouds have parted and a great shaft of whatever-the-hell Jeanne felt, when she saw the vision of the archangel Michael, has hit me too.
“Nana? What I said this morning makes sense. What about my telling the world what it feels like to become a woman.” I stop, feel the doubt creep in. “Or at least telling everyone that becoming a woman isn’t about losing your virginity.”
I’m backing off a little bit but feel I’m onto something when Nana says, “Yes. And the boys, my precious. You must tell the boys, too. Tell them that becoming a man is about a lot more than flexing your pecs and rounding second base.”
“Yes, my precious. I think you’ve chosen wisely.”
“I can do this, Nana. I won’t back down.”
“Compromise is the work of the devil.” Her voice is strange; loving, without a hint of the cryptic or the pious that usually comes with Nana’s remarks about God or the devil. Maybe that’s all God really is…the magic you feel when you click with someone you love. The vision you get when you join hands and complete a never-ending charge that goes back as far as all those who’ve gone before, and forward through time to all those people you help shape.
“I love you, Nana.”
“Listen to Jeanne. She knows what’s best.”
“And what about Great Cate?”
“Give her hell, my humble maid.”
Catherine emerges from Claude’s trailer wearing a gorgeous navy blue sweater that I saw in the Marc Cross catalogue, and a pair of white satin pants. She’s dressed to kill, and I’ll be her first course unless I get my act together. The men have completed the trolleys and Francis sits atop his highchair as the lights on the electronic billboard flicker to yellow.
Claude’s hands are shaking as he pulls from his rack an auburn-colored, LL Bean crew-neck sweater with snowflakes emblazoned across the chest and a pair of black spandex with no pockets.
“Claude. Are you OK?”
“Of course.” His skin’s pale, his hands cold. “Besides, old dressers never die…”
“Jeez, Claude.” I hold up the outfit and feel like throwing it at the vanity. I’d look like some girl trying to join the preppie crowd in this thing. I’m tired of playing a stupid, lovesick girl,” I shout. “Why can’t you get that, mister genius?”
“No one asked you to play a girl, Cease.”
“But what about Cate? She looks so…sexy.”
“I don’t play favorites,” he says. “I would’ve been destroyed in this business a long time ago if I had.” He wipes the sweat from his graying temples and absently feels for the measuring tape. “But I’ve given you an advantage and I’m beginning to wonder why.”
“An advantage?” I search Claude’s tired face. “I don’t understand. Cate looks like she’s going to sidle up to Craig at some red-carpet after-party. This ensemble looks like I’m going to some country club where I don’t really belong.” I press my head into my hands and begin to cry. I feel his small hands gently rubbing my shoulders, and he laughs a real guffaw.
“There are a lot of crazy people in this business,” Claude says. “When I was your age my mother wanted me to be a writer, and I wanted to please her the way every boy who likes boys wants to please his mother. I tried and tried, but my stories had no climaxes—no form at all. And one day I stopped before a beautiful Pierre Cardin in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue and I thought that’s it, all the form I’ll ever need. The collar was an introduction—the texture, a character—and the waistline a climax.” He turns and fishes through the pocket of his pearl-gray cardigan. “I knew then who’d I’d become. But many young men have the same dream. It wasn’t until I started to study people that I got really good—I learned early never to design a dress for a body; design it to fit a character.” He picks up his call sheet from the vanity and throws it at my feet.
“You’re a saint, Jeanne. But you’re also a girl…” He takes out a small notepad and examines numbers he’d scribbled. “And unless you confess your fears to your fans, great Cate is going to wipe the floor with you.”
“It’s time for me to confess,” I say solemnly, repeating Claude’s advice the day he took me under his now fragile wing. “I understand.” Yet my eyes desperately race the collection of bracelets and necklaces he’s arranged at the vanity. Why not, at least, some jewelry? But Claude passes over those things as he pulls out a drawer, takes out a band of golden steel he fits to my right forearm. It looks like a piece of real armor I’d seen as I paged through the glossaries of 15th century warfare.
“Do you lead with your left?” he asks, sounding like the fightmaster who’s been noticeably absent since all our fights became real.
“Yes. Why?” This scene isn’t supposed to be—”
“Push comes to shove is the nature of this business—and you…” his tired, rheumy eyes lock into mine in a desperate, powerful gaze—“young women are both highly competitive.”
I nod. It’s the nature of this business. I follow the logic he’s given me slowly, as if I’m reeling in a fish. The faces on Claude’s walls stare down, begging me to see what I’ve obviously missed.
I’m from a long line of strong girls…girls who were tested and endured…girls who held a secret…and the ones who survived became what?
I have to learn to play my opposite…the opposite of a saint is a girl…a girl who holds a secret she’s aching to confess… and all I’ve been doing is play a tough boy…but a tough boy isn’t going to win Craig’s heart. A tough boy isn’t going to outwit Great Cate.
How would Craig react to a virgin who’s a woman? That’s it. I have the answer…
And then I feel another Big Adult Thought; it alights upon my shoulders as gently as the first flakes of a storm the weatherman says is about to hit the city. I walk across the cobblestone street to a warehouse that’s been converted into condos. I want to turn back, run to Claude and confess everything I’m feeling, everything I said on the last night of my brother’s life. But…if I want to join the stars looking down on me from his frieze, I’ve got to confess. I’ll know when the time is right, and when it comes I won’t hold back.
People who confess are forgiven, Cease.
But not for what I’ve done.
The room has fresh brick walls, beautiful wooden floors, and a newly painted ceiling. Catherine’s already taken her mark beside a window overlooking an abandoned railroad yard, lightly dusted in snow. Modern sofas in magenta and rose sit beside a fireplace. It feels cozy. That’s the way it’s supposed to feel on scenes with big reversals. I take my mark toe-to-toe, a few inches from Catherine. Her lips are moving rapidly. I know what she’s saying.
“Red leather,” I say. She laughs, genuinely.
“Yellow leather,” she replies. “The sixth shiek’s sixth sheep’s sick.”
“The sixth shiek’s sixth sheep’s sick…”
Faster and faster we go at it like a couple of dueling banjos. I feel suddenly proud—all this weirdness aside, we’re professionals. Not the talentless, well-connected Eve. Not the fresh-face-plucked-from-the-cornfield Brad. We worked hard to get here, and the proof is in our training.
Then Catherine does something I should’ve seen coming. She brings her heels together, lightly, and I can hear her loafers gently tap; then her whole face lights up as if she’s just stepped onto the red carpet and the cameras are flashing—those streaks in her eyes look like the brilliant tale of a fireworks display. That’s when I brush my upper lip and feel myself transform. Catherine the Great stares me down…I can see Alexandra in her eyes. I can feel what that cord must’ve felt like as she wrapped it around her cousin’s neck.
It’s not make-believe anymore…maybe it never really was…her motivation is simple…she wants the throne…and if I don’t step up, she’s going to wipe these nice, hardwood floors with my girly character.
Francis sits behind the main camera. He looks exhausted. An assistant counts down with her fingers. I touch my finger to my upper lip again and wait for Catherine to blink as she takes her mark. But she doesn’t.
“Welcome, my captain,” Catherine says. She raises her arms and I nod, perfunctorily. “Your valor in battle has not gone unnoticed…” her voice trails off. I steal a glance at her neck adorned with a golden cross.
“I fight for my prince,” I reply.
Catherine turns to the window. I join her. “Look at all of them,” she says with a sigh, “going about their daily lives unaware that the fate of the earth hangs in the balance.” She pauses and stares me down. “The stars have aligned. It is I who must marry Craig.”
I raise my hand to the cars bustling down lower Broadway. “Love will determine our fate, Catherine. Not a marriage.”
She takes a step toward me, our noses an inch apart. “I’m sorry, Jeanne, fate has already determined that I marry Craig.” I feel my shoulders tense, but my face relaxes.
“Love isn’t a grudge match, Cate.”
“My name is Catherine to you…and while I salute your valor, your insubordination has not gone unnoticed.” She raises her cellphone to my face and presses a button. “I have some bad news, I’m afraid. You’re about to be court-martialed.”
“They can’t arrest me here. This is a neutral island.”
Catherine turns to a plexiglass box that sits on a wooden table beside the couch. A whirring sound can be heard from the box, and then a folder materializes.
“I’m sorry, Jeanne. As soon as you cross the border, you’ll be arrested for murdering a young man under your command.” She takes out a document filled with legal military jargon, and then she holds up a photograph a few inches from my face as Francis closes in. “I hear he was a beautiful boy until you sank your claws in him.”
It’s a photograph of my brother that the coroner had taken.
Deep breath…Jeanne, please help me. Art should imitate life only so much. I feel a hand on my shoulder; firm, secure, and a warmth that tells me there’s an inner peace that comes with accepting your fate.
“I loved him more than life itself. He was wounded in battle and begged for mercy. I will defend what I did in any court.”
She finds the light. I catch her laser stare. “You don’t know what real love is. Did you take him in your arms and he resisted? Is that what you call love?”
“You sound like Susan B. Anthony now. Let’s wait for Craig to choose.”
Francis yells, “Cut.”
Stephanie whispers, “Cease, do you want to come back to my trailer? There’s something I have to show you.” I think it’s a trick but follow her, and after we’re free of the crew she turns and says, “Who woulda thought a couple of classically trained actresses like us would have to dumb-down Greek tragedy for that over-the-top lard, Francis.”
Was Stephanie calling God a lard? I feel my chest relax as she opens the door to her trailer. Her bed’s just as messy as mine. She’s got heaps of underwear and socks atop a leopard-skin comforter.
“Isn’t it gorgeous,” she says as she catches my gaze on her sweater. As she takes it off I steal a glance at the photos next to her computer; a shot of her holding a diploma beside an ivy-covered wall—another of a chocolate lab beaming into the camera.
“That’s Chuckles,” she says as takes off her blouse, grabs a sweatshirt that hangs on her chair. “Sit down, Cease. I never got a chance to tell you how much I like your work.”
“Thank you,” I say, skeptically. “Coombs. Is that an Irish name?”
“English, on my mother’s side. But my father’s Russian.” I see a photo in a gold frame at the top of a dresser. A man in middle age. Handsome…looks a bit like Cary Grant.
“Is that your father?”
Stephanie nods. “He taught me everything I needed to make it on the stage.” She turns as if she’s just forgotten something, but I can see what she’s trying to hide.
“Will he come to the finale to watch the winner…”
“He’s dead. Cancer.”
I bet he is dead. But it probably wasn’t cancer. You probably sucked him dry.
“Russian? Just like Catherine the Great,” I say, trying to see if she could make the same connection I’d found; a Russian tsarina, an American suffragette, and a French girl who lived in the Middle Ages. “Funny, these characters the producers decided on. Such…weird…random…choices,” I say, drawing each word out slowly.
Stephanie fishes for her bra from beneath the pile of clothes. “Yes. But we both know those choices weren’t random.” I wait for the sound of the crew outside to break the awful silence. “I know your secret, Cease. I can see him in your eyes.” Stephanie takes a step and we’re nose-to-nose. Her hand touches my forearm reassuringly. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
“What secret is that, Stephanie?” I say, trying to sound cool, figuring she’s no different than all those rich bitches with all their malicious gossip. She probably had a PI look into my past the same way Craig did.
“That secret to your charisma—the way you transform yourself. You didn’t think you were the only one who’d inherited the secret?” And then she bows her head and I hear the click again and her whole face lights up.
“I don’t know what you mean.” I step back. She blocks the door.
“I’m sorry about what happened to your brother James,” she says. It doesn’t come out as a taunt, but I cringe.
Cate makes a slow arc toward me with her outstretched arm. “He activated the secret in you, didn’t he?” she asks. “And here you are, being court-martialed for killing a boy you love.” Her eyes draw me in like tractor beams. “Art imitates life, don’t you think?”
“It’s not supposed to,” I say, feeling it’s stupid to play coy with her. “At least not like this. I think the truth is one big lie, and art is all we have to get by on.”
“Did James tell you that? He must’ve been brilliant. You sure got the moves to prove it.”
Stop talking about my brother…
“Where did you learn to play the game?” I ask.
“My mother taught me the secret.” I know this is a lie. I steal a glance at her father…
“That’s great. I have to be getting back.” She blocks the door. I search for a weak spot in her stance, can’t find one. It’s not that she’s perfect. It’s just that she doesn’t make any mistakes, I try to assure myself.
“You’re scared. I understand. Eve’s trying to destroy you. I know some of the things she said about your family. But you don’t have to worry about her. She hasn’t got the gift.”
“What do you want, Stephanie?” No. She wasn’t like Eve. Stephanie’s smarter than Eve and more talented, and that scares me.
“The same thing you want—to stand in the spotlight. To feel every ounce of reward you get for learning to play the game as well as we have.” I wonder what her ancestors had been like.
You don’t have to wonder, Cease. Your Nana showed you.
“Even if it destroys you?” I step sideways toward her bed. “Fame has a way of making you do the strangest things to people you love.”
“Yes. And that’s why I want to talk to you. I can see how you’re hurting. You blame yourself for being strong; that’s normal, given a girl from your—” she gently touches her forefinger to her lips as if she’s searching, as if she’s mocking me— “circumstances.”
I study her face and remember that line from Shakespeare—some are born to greatness, some achieve it, some have it thrust upon them. I can tell Stephanie was born to it. I think Stephanie must know exactly what I’m thinking, and it gives me the creeps. It makes me recall the way my mother used to tell me she could read my mind.
“Francis is trying to destroy you,” she says. “He wants you to have a full meltdown for the entire world to see.” She’s right about that. I feel it more and more with each new scene, with each step we take to the final round, to the podium. But I know Francis isn’t behind it, and not his writers either. Does Stephanie know this? “And let’s face it, this show could ruin us both, unless we’re careful.” She’s right about that, too.
I turn my head to face the portrait of her father, and wait until she catches my eyes. “What do you propose?”
“Let me have Craig.”
“And just what do I get?”
“I’ll demand that they let you live.”
“You can’t promise that. You’ve no control over the script, and the final judges will be the viewers.”
“I can convince Francis. He owes me. I know some of the problems he’s having with the producers.” She’s starting to sound like Serena now.
“Let me think about it.”
“You don’t have much time.” She backs away from the door. “But know this. I’m not here to hurt you, at least not in real life.”
“I’m sure your father would be so proud of you,” I say. I pause long and hard on father, so she knows I know her secret.
“I’m sure he was a delicate boy,” Stephanie says in a taunting whisper. Then she lets out a big sigh.“God, how this business can destroy the sensitive soul.”
“Don’t talk about my brother again,” I warn.
“Don’t talk about my father again.”
We square off. Neither of us blinks.
“Funny how it’s all becoming so real,” she says, in a singsong stage whisper I know has a not-so-funny punchline. “That detective who’s been asking questions about your…family stopped by and asked me what it was like working with you. I said you were a real method actor and had a lot of your own material to work with…” She trails off, but her eyes tell me she’s not done.
I don’t have a comeback. Our shoulders brush as I take a step to the door.
“Maybe you’re right, Cease,” she says. “Art might be the only thing you have left to clear your name.”
I nod and head back out into the not-so-real world.
Yousef tries to cheer me up on the way home. “Maybe you get in a series, Miss Cease. My cousin tells me maybe they make a whole army of saints and you go around and take out all the bad guys.”
“Saints don’t hurt people, Yousef. Only people hurt other people.” I give him a bittersweet smile before I close the door and hurry past the doorman. The sunset has dipped below the monolith and I rush to our apartment. I feel suddenly grown-up, and I need to ask Nana about intimacy…I mean…I know my Nana isn’t comfortable talking about sex, but I think we’re ready to talk about what Craig’s looking for…in me, as a character. Her arms cross as I blow by her, looking about the same as when she played the French linebacker.
“We need to talk, Cease,” Nana says as soon as I close the door. I sit on the coffee table. She’s wearing that black dress I haven’t seen since the funeral. I need to head her off at the pass.
“There’s some pretty weird shit going on, Nana. I talked to Stephanie after our scene—” I stop. Nana’s staring daggers.
“Nana? What’s wrong? Thanks for all your help today—” The landline rings. I go to get it, but Nana says “No” and rushes to the phone. She doesn’t look at me as she picks it up.
“Yes, she is. I wasn’t present and would prefer that you not meet again without me being there.”
She hangs up. I feel like Jeanne facing the inquisition. “What did you tell Esme?” Nana asks.
“I said my brother and I got into a fight on the last night of his life—Nana…”
“She thinks you’re trying to confess to murdering your brother. You will end this crazy show now.”
“You mean just quit.”
“Yes, young lady. That’s exactly what I mean. If you don’t, I’ll call Francis and revoke the permission I gave him to cast a minor. I will. Today.” I can tell she means it. She’s wearing her old schoolmarm shoes of cracked leather, but the soles are still pretty tough as she slams one down on the floor. She sways. I rise to help her. She pushes me away. Nana sits back on the couch. “I was foolish to think this role would help you.” Her face is puffing out like one of those puffy fish you see in an aquarium—the kind that know how to protect themselves with those sharp claws on their puffed-out faces, only Nana doesn’t have the thick skin or the claws I learned to wear early on in this business. She takes her forehead in her hands and looks down at the coffee table.
“I have to go back and collect my things,” I say meekly.
“Fine. But you will no longer be appearing in any scenes or talking to Esme without my permission.” I run down the hall and try to slam the door to my room, but it catches on the fleece I’d hung on the back and makes only a muffled thud. Nana does the dishes and cleans the kitchen as I fume on my bed.
I look out my window to the cars along First Avenue. I don’t care about fame anymore. I just want to confess so I can be free from this bolt of grief.
I open my tablet and find another message from Petit Fleur. It’s not as cryptic as my Nana can be. It gets right to the point.
I press reply, write:
I’ll never be like you. I hurt the boy who saved my life and taught me the secret to the gift I’d inherited from you. I loved my brother with all my heart, and as I watched him grow into a rugged, leading man, I wanted him to stay the same…a beautiful boy sunbathing on the wet rocks like one of those nymphs in a Maxfield Parrish print. As I turn the pages in my genealogy I wonder what’s going to happen to me…will I become like you, Jeanne? Or will I die without ever sharing my gift with the world? Did you ever love anyone? And I mean a real person, and not some bright light calling to you with the voice of an angel—a real flesh-and-blood human with wounds that went deeper than anyone you found on the battlefield. It’s not easy, believe me. I know this show I’ve been cast in is just a game, but it’s as real as the game James and I played, the game that a long line of strong girls have played for centuries. It’s over for me now. But I still feel a big speech coming on…the kind of speech that can save me from this heartache and break that bolt of grief that’s been locked around my chest since the funeral. I need to share my secret with someone. Help me, please.
I tell Nana I’ve texted Yousef and I’ll be coming home after I collect my things. We both steal a glance at the front door, wait for the doorbell to ring and for make-believe to save us…I want to run to my Nana, but I just can’t cross the line between us.
Yousef takes me back to the Pine Barrens, in New Jersey—all the trucks are rumbling to life as we turn down a dirt road to a makeshift stage erected at the edge of the forest. I rush to Claude’s trailer but no one answers. I study the crazy hodgepodge of a set—wood planks holding a four-poster bed; purple sheets and a gold baseboard, a gossamer veil covering its canopy. Francis is huddled beside a broken-down camera and doesn’t even mumble a hello as I step up on the stage, ready with my farewell monologue. Craig paces the stage, looks furious. He tears the gossamer veil from the bedpost.
“Where did you get this stupid waterbed?” he asks. “That ’70s Show?”
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Why don’t you ask mister enfant terrible, here.”
Francis keeps his face pressed into the viewfinder and shouts, “The producers have pulled out. I still own everything.” It comes out like he’s just won a battle, but he sounds like a child who’s just had a tantrum. He glares at me. I’m suddenly an outsider, a girl watching two grown men act like petulant little boys.
Time for my swan song…at least I get to say goodbye on stage.
“It’s been great working with both of…” A shot echoes through the forest. We all turn to see hunters in camouflage make their way through a dense thicket.
“Sorry we can’t make this a Cinderella story for you, kid,” Craig says, with the same cold shrug he gave me back in his trailer after that line about white girls. I sit back and feel like I’m one of the viewers about to press down on my choice for the next round; I should nix these drama queens. Francis doesn’t look like a god anymore. He’s human and clueless, and Craig isn’t the confident star who tried to seduce me back in his trailer—but judging from that fierce look on his face, I think he’s got the chops to go the distance in a real drama, if he’d just let go of that macho exterior. Adults really can be just as pathetic as young people. Craig picks up a script that sits on the bed and throws it at Francis. Mister heartthrob needs a lesson in humility. He’s about to step off the stage when I feel the line well up in my chest—as if I’m pulling an arrow taut in a bow.
“Why don’t you just admit it, Craig? You’re a stranger on this stage. Or maybe you can’t handle a real relationship, Hector. I mean, all you really know is TV.”
Craig turns, his eyes like burning coals. He slowly steps back up on the stage. Francis takes off the viewfinder of the main camera and places it in an upholstered case. He picks up the video cam and starts to pan over to the bed.
Cease, be careful. Francis might be filming.
“You think I can’t handle you?” Craig says. It sounds so real—we both take a single step toward each other. “Maybe you can’t handle me,” he says in a deep, stentorian baritone. “All you know about lovemaking you got from your own flesh and blood.”
You’ve got two choices, Cease. You can run back to your Nana and bury your head in her arms—like a girl; or you can stand your ground with the grown-ups.
I feign a wounded look as he walks toward me, squares off his shoulders. When he raises his hand for what is going to be a dismissive, grown-up pat on the back, I slap him hard across the mouth. “Looks like you’re finally making some real choices, white girl,” Craig says, his mouth agape. He offers up a wry smile. “Too bad no one will see it.”
“I’m glad they’re gone,” I say. “I’d rather do a threesome with Eve than have those sick fucks watching us. I feel sorry for you, Craig. You risked a lot being here to get your star-turn. But no producers—no crossover.” I find the light from a single halogen attached to one of the bedposts. “Craig, with all the sick shit white people pull, do you really want to cross over into our world?”
He puts his hand gently on my shoulder. “We were never from the same world, Jeanne. I’m human and you’re special, like a saint.”
That line’s from our scene, or the scene that we were supposed to shoot together. Why is he reciting lines? Don’t ask, Cease. Go with it.
“I get it,” I answer. He looks so vulnerable, so beautiful—those chiseled cheekbones suddenly cast in doubt. I feel my head swim.
“Do you? Do you get it, Jeanne?”
Why is he calling me by my character’s name?
“I think I do. I think it’s time for both of us to cross over, captain. We’re real people. I’m a girl and you’re a man, and if I really want to win this war…” He moves his hand from my shoulder to my belt buckle, gently pulls me in. I push back against his chest. His gaze, and those burning coals that had scared me a moment ago, have softened—they are pleading now… “You’re a man, and I’m a girl from another world.”
“Yes. That’s part of it.” He presses his lips against my ear. “But what if we raised the stakes even higher?”
I tilt my head back, expecting a kiss.
“What if I were your brother?” I try to pull away but his arms are around me. “What if we’d been through hell as children? What if we decided the world was a scary place and we couldn’t trust anyone but each other, couldn’t love anyone but each other? But I’m your brother and can’t love you like that, so I make up a game. I decide the only way we can continue like this would be for us to pretend we are totally different people, characters up on the stage, playing a role. Only we get so into our roles that we don’t want to leave the stage, we start to get upset when we have to go back into the real world.”
“It sounds like I’ve met my match.”
Craig’s down vest is open and my cheek brushes a swath of his strawberry blond chest hair. Our lips meet. I hold our kiss for as long as I can; it has the vast promise of a morning on the beach; it tastes like my favorite flavor of ice cream, Jasmine Chocolate Heath Bar (a huge step up from the wheat grass and brown rice in all those energy drinks); but it also gives me an image. I see a beautiful stranger standing on the other side of a distant border. He’s waiting for me to cross over. I step back and Craig smiles. His green eyes twinkle. For the first time in my life I think the word heartthrob is a silly word used by little girls.
I recoil from the kiss. It feels so real.
Francis’ face emerges from the viewfinder of the video cam. “Brilliant.” The red light above the lens clicks off. Francis puts down the video cam and resumes dismantling the main camera.
WTF? I’m not even supposed to be here.
“Francis, I have to talk to you,” I shout, dashing off the stage. “My Nana has to—”
“Oh, Cease,” says Craig. “I forgot to tell you. That girl your social worker is worried about—the one you brought home for your brother—my PI found her. She’s alive and well and finishing her senior year at a high school upstate.”
I nod. “I’m sure Esme will be relieved to hear that.” I race back to my trailer and find the same boxes I had used to pack my things when I was fired. At the bottom of a box, I find an email from Petit Fleur I’d printed and forgotten:
There were times I thought I was going crazy, because when God pulls back the veil on your personal life for the whole world to see, it’s pretty scary. But you can’t go back once you’re chosen for the role of a lifetime. You’ve got to go for it.
She’s right, but how am I going to explain this to my Nana?
Yousef looks back at me after we take the final turn into the Lincoln Tunnel.
“We don’t have saints like you do, Cease. But I think we have the same God.”
“What?” I’d never really noticed those prayer beads hanging from his rearview mirror. I follow his gaze downtown as we turn, see a look of hurt flit across his face as he looks to the big tower rising on the tip of the island.
“Some people think we’re monsters. But how can monsters have a God?”
“They can’t,” I say. I catch the flash of his gold tooth as he smiles. I look down at the floor. “I feel like a monster for something I did, Yousef.”
His eyes study me in the mirror. “But you’re not a monster, Miss Cease. Because you have a God.”
I wonder if Yousef’s God would be easier to confess to.
When I get home Nana’s kneeling at her prie-dieu. The sunset climbs the cloister’s brick walls. I dump all my things on the bed. I got Yousef to stop at the Gristedes, where I picked up leeks and a parsnip and the rest of the ingredients to make vichyssoise, Nana’s favorite soup.
I blow by her, rush to the kitchen. “Nana. I’m making dinner. I hope you had a good day.” It comes out perfunctory. I try to recall what goodbyes I gave to Francis and Craig, then realize I hadn’t said goodbye to anyone. All I know for sure is that Francis is still a sick fuck, and if Nana sees anything he’s shot today she’ll be angry…hurt too, but mostly angry. She stands slowly and goes over to her roll-top desk. She turns on the laptop.
“Nana. The Wi-Fi’s off. I just tried my tablet.” I race over and close the top.
“It worked earlier,” she says. “I’m trying to see if they’re having that Paulist retreat this year. I thought it might be a fun way for us to spend a weekend—”
“Yes. I’d love to, but let me check for you.”
She backs away from the desk, looks out the courtyard. “How did Francis take the news?”
“I didn’t tell him,” I say. I can’t lie to my Nana. “I didn’t have to. The producers have pulled out and there won’t be a reality show after all.”
“Serves him right.” She reaches for the laptop. “Do you want me to check and see what the blogs are saying?”
“No. Nana, the production assistant’s going to call on the landline, and that might disrupt the connection.” This isn’t a lie. But it’s not the whole truth, either. Nana follows the old wires coated with paint that run along the baseboard and disappear behind the armoire. She shakes her head as I start the broth.
“Maybe there’s some news on Rumor Has It.” She rises, reaches for the laptop.
“NO…Wait. Nana, let’s talk first.” I know the only drama that matters now—the only drama that ever mattered—lies right here, right now, between us—
“Nana? They found that missing girl. Cherise. She’s repeating her senior year.” She slowly brings her hands to her face, smiles, wipes her forehead with a tissue she’s tucked into the sleeve of her gray, baggy cashmere sweater. My mind races to find the sound that’s missing from the room. It’s the grandfather clock. It’s stopped. I forgot to wind it.
The doorbell rings. Nana studies me as I turn for the door; her stoic mask slips a little and I see the desperation, but it’s just Elsie Moschenbach down the hall asking if I want to try some of the baked Alaska she’d made.
“I’m just glad Cherise is safe,” I say as I put in the parsnip and look out from the kitchen doorway. Nana nods a nod that tells me this isn’t about Cherise—she’s just a minor plot twist, a foreshadowing of an event that has made a wall between us. I leave the kitchen, stand beside my chair at the dining-room table.
“Nana. Tell me again. Why did Jeanne give an auto-da-fe? I mean, she didn’t do anything wrong. Why did she have to confess?”
Nana cups her hands together in silent applause. I study the azure Hermes scarf she’s tucked into her baggy sweater. “I think the only way you’re going to understand what she did in the final act of her life is by understanding the nature of tragedy. You’ve studied tragedy, my precious; now tell me what happens when a tragic figure accepts her fate.”
“She dies. She’s killed.”
“No. Before that.”
I think of my final speech as Juliet. “She proclaims her love?”
“Yes, but this love is different than any you’ve ever felt, child. This is not the same as the love you had for your brother, or the love you’ll someday have with a man.” Nana lets out a long sigh. I steal a glance at the votive glow of the laptop screen. “You must think of your final speech not as a confession of guilt but as a profession of faith.”
“But how can you have faith when all the people around you are so bad? And if she had all that faith, why didn’t God save her?”
Nana rises, slowly walks to me, stops only inches from my face. I look down at a tuft of her silver hair that she missed with the brush. The bolt of grief in my chest shifts. Something’s changed between us—I know she’s not coming over to give me a hug, to dry my tears, to rescue me from another of my pathetic meltdowns.
“My precious Cease. You must never forget when Jeanne spoke her last words she wasn’t talking to the British army or the clergy who tormented her. She was talking to God.”
“I think I get it, Nana.” I don’t go for a hug. I’m trapped in her steady gaze, reminding myself that behind all the roles she’s played—the nurturing stage-mom, the taskmaster, the therapist—there’s another role I haven’t even noticed until now. She’s a woman, and if I’m ever going to be free of this grief, I’ve got to cross over into that world.
“How can you love someone…something like that?”
“Jeanne loved God without conditions, without promises. That’s how she became a saint.”
I shake my head violently. I feel my chest seize. “I just can’t…every time I try…I can’t.”
Nana’s behind me now. I feel her wrinkled hands gently caress my neck. I can feel what’s coming as her long fingers reach up to my temples. Her thumbs make a slow revolution.
“You weren’t just chosen by Francis, Cease. You’re not just some actress who was right for the role. You share Jeanne’s blood; and like the other strong girls in your bloodline, you were chosen to share her message with the world.”
I feel my Nana’s thumbs make a third revolution on my temples and then I’m falling…letting go, the way I did when James and I played the game. All the doors and windows of my senses—all the memories I’d shut tightly the day of the funeral, come back…the summer shower and the rain-wet clothes…the lilacs that sat in a giant vase beside the open coffin…the phony look of sadness the funeral director wore…a box of chocolates on my bed in the apartment uptown, with a note: “I’m sorry, Sis. I can’t play the game with you anymore…”
It’s the last day of my brother’s life. I’ve just come back from an audition—a part playing a saint on a reality TV show. I’m remembering the box of chocolates James had gotten me from that chocolatier on Fifth Avenue across the street from where I’d filmed my scene with Rex. He couldn’t play the game with me anymore because it was no longer a game to him. I’m trying to focus on what happened after he came home that day, but all I can see is the funeral; the cold, hard, mask my Nana wore and all the anger and hurt I’d managed to keep locked up inside.
“Nana, why did you have to have an open coffin?” Before she can answer, I blurt out, “It’s all my fault. I wanted him to die. I took a part of him with me every time we played Cease and Desist. Cease, Cease, Cease!” I shout. “It was all about me from the start.” I’m crying now, the same way I did at the funeral—low, angry sobs with my head held down. I’m kneeling before the open coffin, trying to stand, looking down at the beautiful face of my brother…remembering how I nearly made it to my feet and then pitched forward—almost did a face-plant into one of the coffin handles—when I felt Nana’s hands in my armpits pulling me up, saving me once again.
Nana’s got me by the armpits again. I feel a vicious tug as her small, strong arms twist me around to face her. She’s lost the stoic mask. It’s the face of a tough, old woman bearing down.
“Cease. My precious child. Tell me what you’re feeling.”
“That it’s all my fault. That I killed him.”
Her gaze softens but in her rigid grasp I know I’ve changed in her eyes. “What you’re feeling is normal. You wanted to believe what all girls need to believe—that someone you loved sacrificed himself to save you—that your brother sacrificed himself so you could be here. That’s the only way you could accept the big break you got—the only way you can keep that door closed is by blaming yourself for all the success you’ve gotten since another door opened. It’s dramatic. It’s a brilliant choice,” Nana shakes her head sadly, “at least to a director. But it’s not the way real life works. You’re not some character in a tragedy, Cease. You’re human. James was human too, and that means he had flaws—”
She takes my face in her hands and slowly draws me in. “Part of growing up is realizing that the brother you idolized wasn’t a god.”
I nod, feel my chest expand. I see the line going from losing James to getting this part—a connection I’ve been drawing every day since I hung up with my agent after we returned from the funeral. A memory I’ve long repressed from the frozen depths rises. I see my brother’s lips—how funny those gorgeous lips look, and the purplish lines woven between them, woven into them. I dig—force myself to see it, because I know it’s the only way I’ll ever shake free from this bolt of grief. My brother’s tongue was a ghastly purple sticking out of his mouth when I found him hanging from the rope. Those lines were from the undertaker who had sutured his mouth to keep his tongue from sticking out…
I smell something. Is it from one of those unlocked windows and doors of memory? No. I forgot to turn off the soup. I rush into the kitchen, and the Le Creset pot is black and burning. I try to salvage what’s left of the vegetables, put more water in…when I come back Nana’s at her prie-dieu. I feel the words rush from my lips as if I’m in danger of being stranded back in no man’s land, the other side of the great divide.
“I promised I’d win for him,” I say. “But that was a lie. The truth is I’d stolen something from my brother. That’s what it felt like, anyway—as if I’d stolen some secret part of him that made me stronger.” I bow my head. I study the ice on the windowsill, follow the old telephone lines as they snake past Nana’s roll-top desk through a ray of sunlight on the Delft saucer that sits on a shelf in the corner. Nana shifts her gaze from her red bible to the treetops of the courtyard dusted with snow.
How do I cross the great divide between Nana and me? I don’t need a script anymore…but there’s a question I have to ask that’s long overdue.
“How do you pray, Nana?”
“It’s easy.” Her face relaxes as if she’s been waiting for that question since the first script arrived at our door. “All you have to do is feel like you’re becoming a child.” Then she makes a serious face. “Cease. You never got the childhood you deserved. Maybe prayer can help you get some of it back.” She begins to rise and I rush over. Nana’s too big to have me beside her on that rickety old thing. I kneel on the wooden floor beside her. I look down at the cloisters. A girl with a dachshund sits beside an old man on a bench…I follow the line the long shadows make at their feet.
What am I supposed to feel?
Nothing. All those times I bowed my head at grace before meals…all those times I tried to pray on the battlefield after nursing another boy and all I felt was rage…the promises I’d made before they closed the lid on my brother’s coffin. Those were lines I delivered from a script.
How do I feel nothing?
It’s so easy, it’s hard. Let go of everything I think is important…
I flex my calves, try to read the expression on Nana’s face; hope-filled, serene, but mysterious, too—it tells me I’m just getting my feet wet. I have to dive deeper. Behind this bolt of grief there’s a buried chest that holds the secrets to my deepest happiness. I bow my head again, but all I see is red. All I feel is the rage I felt after punching my way to another bloody victory on the battlefield. I rise and step back.
Nana turns and says, “Jeanne just gave me a message, Cease.” She takes my hands, places them gently beside her own on the old wood pew. “She’s not done with you yet.”
She rises and presses on the keys of her laptop.
“I didn’t tell Francis that I quit,” I confess. “And I kissed Craig.” The last part of my confession comes out weird. Why am I ashamed to admit that I kissed him? Probably because he’s a man and that means… I squint into the courtyard below.
Nana smiles, turns from the keyboard. “You’re a woman, Cease. A French woman, and that means you know how to seduce a man.”
Great. So I’m going to learn how to pray, and how to seduce a man. This is the House of de Menich unplugged.
No new scenes have been posted, but there’s a message from my agent with an attachment. It’s an article from the Rumor Has It tabloid.
FRANCIS NIXES NETWORKS—WILL GO LIVE ON WEB TV
Nana and I both shake our heads. Chromecast, Roku, AppleTV, Hulu—it all sounds like an alphabet-soup of technology neither of us knows—but the bottom line is right there on my screen. After an advertising blitz on all the major networks orchestrated by a team of web experts, Francis will debut this series—History’s Superheroes: A Teenage Reality Show—on the web.
“Cease. Is the article trying to say you’ll be going live and no one will be able to yell cut?”
“I guess. Like being on the stage,” I say. The pride I feel over my stage training sinks suddenly as I realize the size of the audience that may be watching.
“Live,” Nana repeats. “Live TV. Like The Ed Sullivan Show?”
Only this isn’t going to be a couple hundred people that love off-Broadway. This will be the world…
I bring the soup over to her desk. She takes two gulps and studies the details of Francis’ speech to the producers. She’s no longer saying I’m off the show.
I rush to my room and get my tablet. I’ve got a message with two attachments, the first titled Rules of the Final Round.
“Why would Francis take a risk like that?” she asks.
“Publicity. I think he wants to attract an adult audience. You’ve got to admit, it was a little weird calling this a reality show for teenagers. What kind of reality show has time travel and historic characters?” The radiators are clacking to life as I run down the hall. “Nana, can you check the entertainment sites and tell me what they’re saying about Francis? I think he’s been planning this from the start.” Then I remember my meeting with Stephanie. Had she seen this coming? Maybe she and Craig had promised not to tell anyone in exchange for being chosen as the last couple standing? Maybe I’m being naïve to think Francis would allow a bunch of viewers at home to decide who would take the podium.
“Stephanie tried to make a deal with me after our scene together.” The look on Stephanie’s face after she clicked her heels—that cold, vicious stare that told me she could cut me to ribbons and not even miss her cue—had scared me but looked so familiar. What noble cause was behind that? Maybe Nana’s wrong. Maybe some girls with the gift make getting ahead their cause.
Nana scrolls down to the rules of the final round. She shakes her head and sobs. “Oh no, my precious. There’s going to be more real blood…a lot more…I can’t let you go.”
But she doesn’t rise and try to block the door. We both know why. This isn’t some silly reality show. It never was. It’s my life. It’s not just about the past. All those girls who shared my gift—all those names on the pages…I’ve got to choose my fate the way they chose theirs. My genealogy contains a clue for defeating Cate—something my brother and all those girls in my bloodline were trying to get me to see.
Rules of Final Round
- All weapons will be real.
- Any finalist who attempts to stop a scene will be disqualified.
- The entire sequence will be continuously filmed on a closed set. Each of the historic figures will be given a key to unlock a cell where the male contestants will be waiting. The door will not open unless at least two keys are engaged, simultaneously.
- First female contestant to enter the inner sanctum will give her speech to the man of her choice.
I flip through the slide show Francis sent of the set. It looks like a giant igloo with three concentric circles around the core; the dimensions of the circles are listed beside each shot. The walls are eight feet high and solid ice, the passageways only five feet across. Nana turns to me. “What does it mean?”
“It means I’ve got to kill Susan or Catherine to claim my prize of Brad or Craig.”
“Francis will never get away with it. He’ll be arrested and charged—”
“Not necessarily, Nana. It says the weapons will be real, but it doesn’t say we have to harm each other…Stephanie and I are the only ones with any stage experience…”
“It’s not the stage experience I’m worried about. For you to collect those keys—”
“I think I could easily disarm Eve.”
“Cease?” She points to her screen—the website FANSCAN—as I stand and stretch my legs. It tracks all the online traffic for the production company. “It looks like Francis has captured the adult market.”
18-to-24-year-olds have grown from a few hundred thousand to three million.
24-to-46-year-olds had fewer than 15,000 last month. I study the blinking cursor beneath their new number: 800,000.
“I bet he planned the whole thing,” I say. “Francis may be a sick fuck. But he’s a smart sick fuck. He doesn’t just want to see a catfight between me and Cate. He doesn’t want to see me go all the way with Craig. He wants the whole world to watch us kill each other; and then, when we’re covered with blood, when we’re naked and wounded for all the world to see—he’ll step back and say, ‘See what young people will do to get ahead. What a sick world we live in.’ I bet you he’ll win even more trophies than he did for the serious movie he made.” Anger pulses through my limbs as I recall the time I told him I was going to quit and he gave me a big speech that turned out to be a ruse.
Nana reads what the online viewers are writing, and it’s not too consoling:
—Serves them right…if they really want to win let them fight to the death.
—Looks like we’re going to get a whole lot more than just Susan’s breasts.
—Is there a rating system for a show that goes live online?
“Is there?” Nana asks, helplessly.
“Is there what?”
“A rating system. Censors. Anyone who can stop this?” We both know there is—we can.
I open the second attachment, titled: Coup de Grace for Jeanne d’Arc. Speech for Cease de Menich if she survives as a runner-up. Francis’ writers must’ve brainstormed every scenario. I let out a condescending sigh. “You think with all those experts he’s hired he could at least find one who knew the French language.” I point at the phrase Coup de Grace.
“Francis thinks Jeanne’s death was some kind of mercy killing. That’s what coup de grace means, as if she’d been beaten down so much they were doing her a favor.” I scoff, wait for Nana to scoff.
But she shakes her head. “Glad to see he finally got something right.”
“You read her history, Cease. She was captured in battle, taken to a tower in Rouen and chained to a wall while they tormented her. They starved her. They dragged her family down from the Loire Valley to witness a trumped-up trial for their own child as a witch and a heretic. Jeanne must have been relieved to have it all finally end.” Nana turns to me. “You’re afraid of that line for a reason, my precious. And it’s not because of what they did to Jeanne d’Arc.”
“No. I’m not.”
“Mercy killing,” she says slowly, challenging me the way Stephanie would. “As if you just can’t bring yourself to watch someone you love suffer another day.”
He needed me. He wasn’t afraid of me. He needed me to take charge.
“My child.” She takes my hands, pulls them into her spongy breasts. “If you really understand your character, if you really get what Jeanne was in this life, then tomorrow when you face the world you’ll be playing a girl—a girl who’s got to stand her ground against impossible odds.” Nana tugs at her scarf. “Jeanne wasn’t a princess and she wasn’t a superhero. She was a girl in this life, not a saint.”
I shake my head. I don’t want to hear it. There’s still a part of me who wants a fairy-tale ending, a part of me who wants to be swept off my feet by Craig and carried away. We could kiss. Hell, I’d take my top off if it meant I didn’t have to kill anybody…
Nana places her hand on my thigh as if she were groping for something. She squeezes. The block of ice that holds the memory of that terrible night with my brother is slowly melting, drifting…I look at Nana, who is desperately hoping her prayers can reduce that ice to a puddle of tears…with the bolt of grief clattering to the ground in one big, gorgeous, fit-for-the-stage climax…
But real life doesn’t work that way, Cease. Real love doesn’t work like that…
Nana squeezes harder. I wince…a memory comes into focus.
I’m in the passenger seat of the car. My mother’s at the wheel. She’s taking me to the commercial audition, only she has no intention of arriving…I’m looking out the back window of the car, at my brother who is…I can’t see it. Nana’s trying to get me to see something else…
“They sent nuns to her cell who took off Jeanne’s clothes and checked to see if she was still a virgin. Do you remember reading that?” Nana asks.
“They must’ve probed her, maybe used some God–awful instrument. Can you imagine how it must’ve felt to have people you were supposed to love and trust do something like that?”
“That’s disgusting.” I spit out the words. What does she want me to see?
“And you think our world is any better? Just look at all those pictures they show…” Nana stops when she sees the hurt on my face. I’m remembering my brother crying on his bed after Phil sent the tape of him kissing another boy to all his classmates at Dayton. Will Craig try to put the moves on me the way Rex had? What will Brad really want from me? What about the girls and boys who’ve written me? What should I say to all of them when my shot at the podium comes up tomorrow? And Francis? His face behind the lens, seeing only dollar signs? But worst of all is Catherine the Great. What will she do to me?
As usual, Nana knows what I’m thinking.
“So what’s she like, this Miss Coombs,” she asks coldly.
“She’s the whole package. Deerfield. Yale. Broadway.”
“You’re not exactly a wilting fleur-de-lis.”
“Yes.” I shrug. “This isn’t about being the last girl standing anymore.”
“I didn’t think it ever was,” Nana says.
The look on her face tells me what I already know. If I want to stand my ground against great Cate, I have to be free of my past. I must tell the world what I did, what my brother said on the last night of his life.
I close my eyes and picture the center of those concentric circles that will be the set tomorrow. I don’t see a podium. I don’t feel Craig’s gorgeous lips pressed against mine. There’s just a memory that haunts me, buried deeply in a block of ice.
“Nana, I think James was trying to share a secret with me on the last night of his life. I think he’d found something in our genealogy that might help me beat Cate tomorrow.”
Nana nods cautiously. I try to picture that night uptown in the old apartment, arrange the scene—beat by beat—with my brother on the bed and me standing over him.
“On the last night, I didn’t really listen to what James was saying. He’d just come back from the therapist. He told me I was going to become famous playing a virgin. I thought it was a joke. I told him no one in this business ever got famous that way. He laughed. I laughed.”
Nana isn’t laughing. She’s staring down at her bible. “What did you do?”
I can almost see the frozen memory. I can’t…I just can’t…Nana lets out a big, angry sigh. I run to my space by the window on the other side of the living room. The silver monolith rises up before me like a mute stone.
Help me, Jeanne.
Please. Please. I search the offices. All those translators. The languages they know…One of them must know a word that can save me…
I feel the light suddenly reflecting off the top windows of the monolith—soft, yet penetrating—as if it had been sitting in a single spot all these months waiting for me to find it, waiting to fill a darkness I’ve felt in my chest since I lost him.
Be real. Be yourself. You’ll have to make a choice…
Jeanne. You know everything about me, don’t you? And you know what’s going to happen. So tell me, please. If I really don’t care about winning anymore…if all I want to do is tell all those girls and boys who wrote me what they need to do to feel the love you got me to feel, what should I say?
I’m looking out the back window of a car. My mother’s driving, taking me to that commercial audition, only she has no intention of arriving. James knew this. He’d known all along…That’s why she’s locked him in the house. But even that wasn’t enough to keep my brother from trying to save me. She knew the bond we shared, the gift I’d inherited, and she hated me for it. But she’d underestimated just how strong that bond was. Nothing could keep us apart. She hadn’t just locked him into the room…
His flaring nostrils—the face I saw up on the silver screen when Manny played the trailer for the audience, the boyish girl who I became to win all those accolades—and then I take a deep breath and feel it rising in my chest…pushing against the bolt of grief…the look on his face I somehow saw through the rear window of the car…my brother’s hands were bloody after he’d torn himself loose from the radiator where my mother had chained him…
I let out a big sigh and feel I’m one step closer to some great truth. The same way I felt when I awoke in the hospital bed after the car crash and thought I’d won. She was dead and I’d gotten him back all to myself. That must be love—
But I know now, it’s not. It’s a big lie…like the stage I jumped on to get away from the truth…like the things I told the coroner after he asked me where the bruises on my brother’s neck and face had come from.
So I get it, Jeanne. You’re laying it out for me straight; if I want to be free of this bolt of grief in my chest—I must confess what I did on the last night of his life.
I jerk my head away from the light—look strangely at the oversized furniture in the cramped room and try to imagine my Nana here alone in this apartment without anyone, without the two children she saved, without a sister or a husband. Alone…
Confess. Yes. But survive. That’s what I owe my Nana. That’s what I owe my brother. And that’s what I owe the long line of strong girls.
Nana’s looking at me expectantly as I turn back from the window and face her. I feel the shift, not too sudden or dramatic, not the way an actor makes a transition on stage; just a slow revolution that tells me I’m coming around…the right direction, and I’m not alone. I recognize the battlefield all those girls and boys who wrote me are trapped in…
Then I remember Petit Fleur’s advice: I remember waking up some mornings on the battlefield and wanting to run home to my mother and father.
“Nana, at the funeral—when I was kneeling before the coffin—looking down at him, I made all these promises about how I was going to win, how I was going to be the last girl standing. What I really felt was free. I was free of that game that had become a weird torture. I felt guilty for feeling free. But that’s how I felt.”
She walks to the kitchen. I follow. She stirs the soup with a wooden spoon. I take it out of her hand.
“Nana, you saw the bruises on his face when he’d get back from the Brambles. You saw what was happening to him and did nothing.”
“I got him help.”
“It’s a lie,” I shout. “I followed him to that therapist’s office on Central Park West. When he got out, he put on that brown sackcloth and I heard him reciting that stupid prayer. That prayer didn’t come from God, Nana. James had gotten it from reading The Way of The Pilgrim, a book about a monk who walks the globe and prays for alms while all the time reciting some Jesus prayer.”
“He was fine when you were away,” she exclaims. “He was getting better when you were out playing a vampire. But when you got back—”
“No, Nana. That’s not true.” I feel the tears. I clench my teeth. “He needed me.”
“Yes, he did,” she relents. “And you needed him.” She hugs herself and her ribs convulse as she stifles the sobs. And then I feel another Big Adult Thought. I don’t know if it’s the giant secret in these mysterious tomes my brother was trying to get me to see, but I do know I have to share it with my Nana. Our ancestors were rich and poor, but they all shared one thing; they were real in a way that went beyond having a well-connected mom or dad, a storied bloodline, the things Stephanie had, the things my brother had wanted so badly but found out too late were pretty useless alongside real love. I think that’s why he knew he couldn’t play the game with me anymore. He was distracting me from my mission.
The grandfather clock strikes the hour. The sun has left the cloister’s walls. The storm the forecaster predicted has blanketed the cloisters in a few inches of snow. The girl in the courtyard is playing hide and seek with her dachshund.
I race to the bookcase and take out the first volume. I follow the dotted purple lines that each connect a girl with another member of her immediate family, activating the gift of charisma—that magic that turned little girls into powerhouses—and study the annotations my brother made in the margins. His notes first appear two generations after Jeanne d’Arc. There’s a pattern I’d missed, a pattern I think my brother had found and tried to share with me on the last night of his life. I’m trying to read what he wrote. But all I feel is that last night; his face, and what I said when he tried to tell me what fame really means. I try to shake it off.
“What happens to Stephanie when things don’t go as planned?” Nana asks instinctively.
“I don’t know. She doesn’t get upset when things break down off-screen. That’s why they call her the ice princess.”
“She’s got a flaw,” Nana insists. “Find the flaw and you find the character.”
I’d learned that at Juilliard. I picture Stephanie, crouched with her crossbow—that look, like a flash of lightning, that flitted across her face after she narrowly missed the bull’s-eye; as if a sudden squall had upset a perfectly calm day.
I know what it is. I’ve felt it too. It wasn’t anger. It was rage, a cold, nearly irrepressible rage.
“Nana—she’s got a lot of pride…”
“You’ve studied the classics, young lady; what does pride mean?” Nana’s suddenly morphed into the role of a demanding teacher. I welcome the transition. She bolts up and braces her arms by her side, coming to attention. She reads: “Contestant must recite lines verbatim. Contestant will forfeit two minutes ad-lib time at the end of each scene if he/she misses cues or fails to recite lines; those two minutes will be turned over to the opposing player.” The kindly grand dame has left the building. Nana knows I need a drill sergeant to get out of this funk and get me prepared. I feel the beads of sweat on my upper lip. I raise my finger to my lip. She raises her hand to stop me.
“Pride is hubris,” I reply, “and that’s a tragic flaw that caused mortals to think they were gods.”
Nana nods. I nod. But I’ve no idea how this is going to help me beat Catherine the Great. I pull out a chair from the dining-room table and we each take a seat.
“The cameras will be hidden, so be careful, my princess.”
I fight off the memory of Francis with that big leer as he caught me off-guard with Craig. And that tape Phil had secretly made of my brother making out with a boy.
“What would you say to James if he were standing here, right now?” She levels a steely gaze I’ve never seen before. She points to the center of the Oriental carpet. I take my mark.
“I’d tell him that I love him. I’d tell him that I’m sorry about what happened.”
Nana says nothing. I can tell I’ve disappointed her.
“What kind of deal did Stephanie try to strike with you?”
“She said that if I let her have Craig, she’d let our battle end in a draw. But that was before Francis decided to go live.”
Nana pushes her pince-nez up the bridge of her nose. “Stephanie thinks God’s on her side. That’s the nature of pride-filled people.” I wish Nana would stop talking about God, and then I stop and have a Big Adult Thought:
The reason I feel this way is because I thought God was a mean SOB like Francis…but that’s not God, at least, not the God Jeanne introduced me to.
My chest tightens and I see my mother’s face just before she turns the wheel. I’ve been trying to decipher the look on her face since that moment I woke up in the hospital.
“Nana, what can I do? I’m afraid of her.”
“I said before, trust your character.”
“My character’s been dead for almost six hundred years, Nana. No stupid saint is going to save me tomorrow.” There’s a long beat between us that I would’ve filled a week ago with an apology. But I’m not sorry anymore. Sorry is for losers. My brother said he was sorry to God. Sorry for what? Taking me under his wing, showing me secrets that might help us break from our sick past? I’m not saying sorry for any of that. We may not have a storied past, but feeling sorry for ourselves just isn’t in the de Menich DNA. I just don’t know how I can reach her. I look down at my feet.
She grips my shoulders and pulls me in. “You can’t control what sick things may be in store. You can’t control what Stephanie or Craig might do. But you can control your character. Jeanne wants you to share your secrets with the world. When you do, all the self-pity you associate with her will fall away and everyone will see how strong you really are. This is the nature of tragedy.”
Nana goes back to her desk and fetches one of Jeanne’s biographies. “I want you to remember all the research you did of Jeanne. Remember when she was taken prisoner and given a tour of the torture chamber by order of the clergy?”
That scene isn’t hard to conjure. I see the stone steps of the dungeon, all the wrought-iron instruments of torture—being strapped down on a slab and watching that wheel overhead turn, and my limbs slowly being pulled…
“I’ve got it, Nana. Now what?”
“You must do what Jeanne did. You must dig in your heart and see the real reason you were chosen.” Nana holds out her hand as if the real reason I was chosen is in her palm. “All that pain your character endured…” Nana continues. I can see it now—that grotesque montage—my brother’s pacific face contorted in pain, the flaring nostrils. The sutured lips…“All that pain only you can understand will stop if only you renounce your ambition—if only you put on a dress and go back to playing a little girl. But you’re about to find a new space. You’re about to become a woman.”
I nod again. All the pain in my life is there for a reason. I get that. But I still don’t know how the hell God is going to save me from a real person who’s got lightning-fast reflexes and no qualms about cutting me to ribbons.
My tablet’s ringing. “I have to get that.” I race to my room where I left it on the bed.
Nana calls after me, “What are the numbers from your scene with Stephanie?”
“At least ten million in the eight-to-fifteen-year-old demographic, according to Fanscan,” I shout from my room. “That doesn’t include the adult audience and isn’t factored for how much they might grow in the three hours from the start time.”
“Let’s review after dinner. Craig will make the final choice after you conclude with Stephanie?”
“Yes. Actually, the fans watching will make the final choice, but Craig will choose which one of us will be his lover, the girl who helps him save the world.”
“What will happen to the girl he doesn’t choose?”
“She’ll be cast back into her real historic epoch and forced to endure whatever real life she had.” Nana fingers her beads and looks out on the cloisters. I close the door to my room and see I’ve got a message from Brad.
“Cease? It’s Brad. Have you gotten your final scene yet?”
“No.” He must be calling from the street. I can hear traffic. “But I’ve got to meet you. We can’t talk over the phone.” It sounds awfully cryptic for Brad—but then, this is the boy who duped me into believing we’d walk hand-in-hand down the red carpet together.
If this is a trick, Brad, watch out. That little ingénue who swooned at our kiss has left the building.
“Sure. Where are you?”
“Francis has moved us to a hotel in midtown. It looks like there’s a bunch of billboards outside my window, and that’s Broadway below.”
“That’s Times Square, Brad.”
“Yeah. I can see a theater. Your bio says you live on 89th Street and East End Avenue. I could take a cross—”
“I don’t live on the Upper East Side anymore. We’re down in Tudor City.” I hear a clicking, his fingers pressing into a tablet keyboard.
“I’ve got it—near the United Nations building. We could meet at a club.”
“We’re too young to get into most clubs. Just a second.” I stick my head out into the hall. “Nana. Can Brad come over?”
“Yes. But you two are to stay in the living room and I want him gone by ten. You’ve got a big day tomorrow, young lady.”
“Brad. Take the A train down to 34th Street and then transfer.” I give him the address.
“Got it. See you soon.”
I race down the hall, collect the genealogies still scattered on the floor, and put them carefully in the bookcase. I pull the Chippendale chair into the living room, as far away from the bookcase and the cloisters as possible. We’ll sit, we’ll strategize. Because Brad’s made it to the final round he can mix things up, and I intend to keep all my options open. I look over the living room. A coleus Nana planted is beginning to bud on the windowsill. After tomorrow this silly reality-drama will be over and I’ll be free. Nana will probably insist I go to college, and there I’ll meet a normal boy and fall in love.
Free? Wake up, Cease. You’re going live tomorrow with real weapons; one of your adversaries will probably be high on cocaine, the other is so cold and calculating she took out three men in an alley without batting an eye.
I walk circles round the coffee table until the doorbell rings. Brad hands me a collection of irises and we hug on the threshold. He’s wearing a white sweatshirt with red horizontal lines that make his chest look bigger. We kiss and then he pulls me into a desperate hug.
“I ran the last two blocks,” he says. “It’s sleet now. No more snow.”
“Let me get a vase for these,” I say, pulling away from him. “Take a seat in the chair and I’ll sit on the couch.” I run to the kitchen as Brad takes a seat, looks out through the window to First Avenue below.
“Tudor City,” he says. “Funny, how it fits with your character.”
“The Tudors were later, Brad, but yeah, sometimes it feels as if I’ve never left the set.” He looks older, a lot less the Boy Scout—scared, too, like some of the boys I brought home looked after I’d left them alone with my brother. He rubs his wet hands on his navy blue corduroys. He downs the water I give him, hands back the glass, speaks as if he’s got some great secret to share.
“I think we still have a shot, Jeanne. I’ve been hearing all sorts of things…” He shrugs in that way I’m weary of, and then comes the lopsided grin that tells me he’s got a secret.
“Well, yeah. I mean, you’re a realist—that’s what I liked about you from the start. But face it, you don’t have a shot with Craig. You just don’t have enough experience.”
Experience? Does he mean the kind of experience Catherine has on stage? Because when my training kicks in—and when I hit my mark tomorrow, my training will kick in—I’ll go toe-to-toe with any actress in this city.
But I can tell by the way he looks down at his feet, after he says it, and makes a wry smile, that’s not the experience he’s talking about.
“You think I don’t know how to please a man like Craig?”
“No.” Brad holds up a stop-sign hand. “I mean, yes.” He wipes his wet hand on his thigh. “I’ve looked at all the possible scenarios, and I think I’ve got a way for us both to come out on top. Maybe you’ll go up against Eve. But you’ll lose to her and I’ll rescue you, the way I did after Francis tried to axe you.” I follow his eyes as he talks—they dart to the right, then down to his boots…
“So, you were the one who saved me from getting axed?”
“Well,” he shrugs, “I talked to Francis, but I don’t have any real power.”
I’m sick of this bullshit boys pull. They think I don’t know the score just because I’m a virgin. I feel the cool, furious rage rise in my chest. So that makes a woman to you, mister Boy Scout? Eve’s got more experience in bed, so what? I try to look disgusted to hide the fear and the hurt. I stand, walk over to him. I’m wearing the navy-blue cashmere V-neck Nana bought me after my rave review for Juliet. I pull the sleeves up, slowly. I arch my back. I’m not wearing a bra—not very ladylike. Brad’s eyes are glued to my breasts the same way they were glued to Eve’s phony peaks after she pulled off her chest plate. I place my forearm gently against his ear and then draw it slowly, like a bowstring, across his face.
“You’re wet,” I whisper in his ear. “I know what it feels like to be with a boy I just can’t keep my hands off of.”
“Well,” Brad’s voice cracks. I brush my breasts against his face. “You’re so beautiful compared to her, and I know you’ll develop a fan base…” I brush my fingers through his hair. Should I kiss him? “…and once you lose to Eve—”
I pull back. “Wake up, little boy.” I slap him. Hard. Across the mouth. “Eve sent you down here, didn’t she?”
“No. Why would you ever—”
“Liar,” I shout. I see the hurt and near-rage flash across his face.
“We just want what’s best for you.”
I unleash my maniacal laugh. “That’s big of you. Sounds like she’s got another wannabe loser under her finger. I’ve seen what girls like Eve can do to boys like you.”
“Watch out, Cease. She’s going to hurt you tomorrow.”
“Wow, I’m really scared, Brad.” I hold up my hand and let him see how steady it is. “You should’ve picked a better actor to have sex with, Brad. Tomorrow, at least ten million people are going to watch me show her what real love feels like.”
Brad grabs my forearm, squeezes…and through clenched teeth he says, “Eve and I are going to win, so just back the fuck off…”
“Let go, Brad. Or you’ll get what Rex got.”
“What’s going on?” Nana’s in the doorway, pulling her robe in that worried-sick way.
“Nothing,” I say. “We were just rehearsing.” And we are. The same way Craig and I were just rehearsing when he held me and said it was time to raise the stakes; the same way my whole life has become one big scary improv fit for the stage. Only tomorrow will be the climax.
“Good luck tomorrow, Brad,” I say, as I follow him to the door. “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
I stand outside Nana’s bedroom door. She’s propped up, reading a book about Saint Paul. She puts down her book and pulls to one side the wool blanket I heap on the bed as she says, “I want the marshmallows.” I race down the hall to the kitchen and put some water on. Hot chocolate in bed—a ritual we started after I’d survived my first week of this show. I’d come home after marching across battlefields, all my fear and sadness tightly held beneath the armor of a warrior saint. But then I’d get home, run into her arms and cry and cry and cry, and when I stopped she’d hold me and I’d fill the void with memories of the boy who molded me like clay…One door has closed, and the door that is opening will lead you down a path to becoming a woman, Nana had said.
I hand her the cup of hot chocolate and climb beside her. She takes a sip, puts the cup down on her nightstand, beside a photo of me on a swing and James pushing me from behind. She gives me a grave look, her eyes peering over the pince-nez like a protective hawk. The radiators are clacking. The silence sits between us like the heavy, wool blankets on the bed.
“Have any of the speeches arrived?” Nana asks.
“No.” This is the first outright lie I’ve ever told my Nana. One of Stephanie’s speeches has arrived, “accidentally” sent to my inbox—at least that’s what Francis would probably say if I confront him, that I got it by accident; but it served its purpose. It scared the shit out of me, and I don’t want Nana to know that. It isn’t much of a speech, at least from a dramatic point of view. It’s just Catherine telling the world I murdered my brother—how I beat him to death out of sheer lust for fame, an insatiable hunger to be the last girl standing. Francis of course included, for all the world to see, the photos the coroner had taken of James’ bruised face. I picture the detective at our door, my Nana in tears as they take me away, alone in this apartment with nothing but photographs and our strange history. Nana, the woman who had risked everything to save us both, and there would be no one to help her except all those saints who don’t seem to listen.
If I stay, I will be accused of a real murder. If I go, I could be killed; but I’d have a shot at surviving. Nana gently places her arm on my shoulder. I smooth the blankets as I speak.
“On the last night of his life, we got into a fight. I’d come back from my first audition for the role of Jeanne, and when I told him about my character he laughed and said I’d become famous playing a virgin. I told him no one became famous in this business playing a virgin…”
I put my hot chocolate down, shake my head slowly. “Nana. James didn’t kill himself because of what Phil and Serena did to him.” I turn to face her. She takes off her glasses and holds my hand. “We’d already gotten our revenge on Phil and Serena, or didn’t I tell you?” I can’t remember if I’d confessed to the big caper James and I had pulled to pay back the Van der Ebbs.
“Do you remember how handsome he looked in the Brioni tuxedo I got him?” Nana gives me an accusing look so I quickly add, “The one I bought with the money I got from Vampire Grrls.” She nods. “You should’ve seen him in that Brioni tux as he walked up Fifth Avenue. James turned heads, and I’m not talking just tourists here, but all those rich vampires on the Upper East Side looked at him, looked at both of us—as if we were the talk of the town. Do you remember that evening we went to the fundraiser at the Met?”
“We hadn’t been invited to the fundraiser, Nana, but Serena and Phil had been. James and I played the game and decided we could become them. And we did. That was my idea. You would’ve been…”
I’m about to say, proud. But she’s got the apprehensive mask back on.
“What the hell was I supposed to do? You saw what was happening to him.” I could stop, but it’s time to share everything with my Nana. “James hacked into Phil’s email and found messages from one of Mr. Van der Ebb’s business associates that suggested a mutual attraction, and that’s when we found the invitation to a fundraiser to be held in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” I brace my shoulders.
“Our names were on the list, because we were Serena and Phil by then.” I check to see if this is sinking in. Nana props up her knees as if she’s preparing…
“The real Serena and Phil were in Nantucket. I’d dyed James’ hair blond. But he didn’t even need a disguise. He had his Phil down as well as I had my Serena. I found the older man who was Phil’s love interest. James took him behind the Pharaoh’s tomb and made out as I photographed them from the shadows. Then we danced to a laser show and admired a thirty-foot-tall ice sculpture that was absolutely gorgeous until James took a fireman’s axe and chopped it to bits as about two hundred of Phil and Serena’s friends and neighbors looked on. We escaped into the park and laughed so hard we both cried. We sent the tape to every student at Dayton, and Mr. Van der Ebb paid all the damages and didn’t even try to arrest us. Go figure.”
For an instant a look of delight flits across Nana’s face, but she recovers and says, “It’s time for you to see where all this will take you if you don’t stop and face it now.”
“I don’t know who we really are, Nana,” I plead.
“You’re a girl who’s trying to become a woman,” she insists. “You got into a fight on the last night of his life…” She pushes her legs flat, pulls me in. “James was trying to tell you something about what he’d found in our history, what he knew about the game you played…”
“Yes,” I say, defensive. “But I need to do this my way…my own way.” My chest tightens. God. I’ll say anything to finally be free of this bolt of grief. Something about that night we pranked the Van der Ebbs will help me set the stage.
“Nana, we ran right into Central Park after we fled the Met, to Panther Hill. James was laughing so hard he was crying. I’d never seen him so happy when we lay down and looked up to the stars. I put my head on his chest and said we’re free of those people for good. James laughed, but said there was a price we had to pay for the gift I’d been given. I thought it was crazy talk, my brother trying to throw off all the guilt over what he did with our mother.” I look at Nana for an answer but she has her hands clasped tightly in prayer. “What did he mean? I told him we’d already paid our dues. We deserved all the good things that were coming our way. He wasn’t playing Phil anymore. But the person he was playing wasn’t my brother James.” I bow my head. “That was when I knew something was seriously wrong with my brother.
“And that’s when he started talking about God and Jesus,” I say accusingly, and want to shout at Nana because she’d seen what happened to him, too. “He ditched all his pink-yellow-and-green preppie wear and put on that brown sackcloth he found outside some church on 57th Street. He carried that book about the pilgrim who begs for alms and prays all the time. He was supposed to be at the therapist, but I followed him, watched him dart through traffic on the West Side like a stray dog, and then he’d wander the West Side collecting junk from the gutter and bringing it home, arranging it on his bed as if he was trying to divine the future from matchbooks, playbills, and used condoms…”
I shake my head. “We’re not the Glass family, Nana.” I feel the words come out as if I’m slowly releasing the pressure of a horribly overinflated thing, a balloon I’d hoped would burst on its own. “Unlike all the scenes we rehearsed, all the characters we became, James couldn’t accept that at the end of the day we had to go back to being who we really were…and when all the characters we played finally couldn’t cover his hurt, he turned to Franny and Zooey Glass, our last line of defense against real life.” James kept insisting they were real people, not some characters like all the other characters we’d played.
“James de Menich was abused by my sister,” Nana says. “What she did to him wasn’t love. It was desperate and perverse. But your brother was right when he told you about the risks of what you’ve inherited…” Nana looks desperate. She fumbles for her glasses on the table, scans her religious books arranged haphazardly on the dresser beside the nightstand.
“I wish I could go back, Nana. I wish I could climb into one of those time-traveling portals and go back. I’d whisper the names of some of our storied ancestors in my brother’s ear the same way he whispered the Van der Ebb name into mine the day he got their invitation to that coming-out party. The Duke of Bavaria’s blood runs in your veins…One of our ancestors was the cousin to Tsar Nicholas. Why, the Van der Ebbs are practically white trash compared to the House of de Menich…Nana, why didn’t James jump for joy when he found out we had such a rich history?”
“Because he was afraid of what the secret to our past might do to you. But if you come clean, Cease, then this curse you’re so afraid of just might become a gift, as it was intended…there’s a secret your brother found in those pages that he was trying to share on the last night of his life—a secret I know can help you win—or at least survive, tomorrow.”
I let out a big sigh. I feel my chest slowly unhinge a notch, as if the court torturer was standing behind me and for once loosening rather than tightening the screw. I almost go for a hug but Nana’s grim mask returns. She says, “A secret—not a curse, child. That’s what he found in those pages, because God doesn’t give curses…”
“Who does, then?”
“We do. My sister did. James was trying to tell you what the therapists tried to tell you. That you were becoming…” Nana lets out a big sigh. “There’s no such thing as curses,” she says, and leaves it at that.
I feel Nana’s hand on my thigh, clutching me the way she did when she got me to see what they did to Jeanne in the dungeon, all those holy people with some disgusting instrument. I see the soft pool of light I saw in my free fall as I let my shoulders go and tell Nana what happened.
“On the last night of his life, we got into a fight. James said I’d be going up against some tough competition in this reality show and I needed to man up, but I knew what he really wanted…I remembered the bruises he used to come home with when he’d been in the Brambles…He needed to show the world he could be a man, not some little boy that our mother turned him into. He wanted to become a leading man, rugged and handsome, even if the ruggedness came from bruises.”
“You said you wanted to give it to him.” Nana speaks with the same deliberation Esme had used when she confronted me about my date of birth. “Can you tell me what that means?”
“I don’t know.” I place my finger on the tip of my nose and try to see that night again—his high-ceilinged room, that window overlooking the park beside the East River.
“I was afraid, Nana. I felt like I was becoming a character I didn’t want to become. I felt the way Oedipus must’ve felt…that I’d run and run and run…gotten myself as far away from that terrible thing…only to turn and see it was right in front of me.” I feel a sob push up through my chest. Then another.
“James told me to hit him, and if I didn’t he’d go back to the Brambles. I slapped him hard across the mouth. He laughed and said, is that all you’ve got? I placed my hand around his neck. I felt like a healer—one of those exorcists, and my brother was possessed with a demon, and if I could only convince the demon to come into me, jump off him, I could maybe run out to the parking lot and dump the demon somewhere so my brother could finally be free.” I look across and see Nana hasn’t touched her hot chocolate. She’s looking steadfast at her knees, the way she does sometimes when she prays.
“And then I punched him, once—and then I held him in a hug for as long as I could. I felt like a boxer too tired to go on, holding his opponent in the ring. I shouted: James, James, please come back to me… He said I would really need to take a risk if I wanted to win at playing a saint.
“I waited for a kiss but he just stared at me, said you have to take my role. I thought this meant he didn’t want to play anymore, or maybe something larger, like I had to assume the space he left behind when he quit the stage—but he insisted I hit him. I said no. I loved him more than anyone else in the world—and he said he didn’t want to be pretty. He didn’t want to be one of those pretty boys who’d feel nothing but heartbreak at losing lovers the way he’d lost Phil and…he needed to feel what a man felt…”
A gust of wind slams against the living-room window. A gull flutters its wings against the window, then retreats into the snowy night. It shocks me, and I remember what my brother had said that night but I had dismissed.
“And that’s when James said he knew a secret that would help me. A secret that…” I’m trying to remember his words.
“What did he say?” Nana asks precisely, as if with each word she’s trying to thread a needle.
“That the game is only as good as the one who helps activate the gift in you. That the host needed to be pure of heart or the gift would go sour and become only a game that you could win or lose.”
Win or lose…that’s what it’s always been about? I bow my head and it comes to me, his face solemn but no longer wearing that crazy inky mask that I thought was just the role of an egocentric boy. Somewhere between those two poles, he said, there was something else called love…
“I desperately asked how I could win. James said if you really want to win, don’t think about winning. Think about the gift that’s been passed down to you. The one thing understood by all the girls who carried this gift—all those who played the game and won by giving something back to our world—is what real love feels like.”
A single tear descends the beautiful cheekbone of my Nana’s tired face. Her eyes are expectant. I feel as if I’m bathed in the light I saw as I began my free fall from the crane. “I slapped him and then he got off the bed and said he’d leave unless I really slugged him. When he started to put things in his suitcase I knew he wasn’t bluffing, and I couldn’t bear the thought of him being alone, so I gave him a good punch in the temple and that was pretty much it. He demanded a few more in the face and I aimed for his jaw.”
I bury my head in her hands and cry.
“Your brother had a mental…”
“No. Nana, it was me, too.” It feels as if all the air has been sucked from the room as I draw a sharp breath. “I remember watching him sunbathe on the rocks, studying that wound on his thigh and thinking no one would ever harm him again, but also feeling something pulling me in. It was big and gray like a giant wave, and I thought it was love—he was mine now. I’d won him from her. I took my prize from the arms of my own mother—like one of my victories on the battlefield. But that’s not love. I don’t know what it is—control, maybe, but not love.”
Nana releases me. She knows I have to finish.
“It felt like when I played a vampire—how all the boys were so good-looking but I only got turned on when I got to nurse their wounds. And I thought about all those rich boys on the East Side he wanted to fall in love with, and all the hurt they’d probably cause him. The more pain I inflicted on him, the more I got to kiss those wounds, the more rugged he became…It was all I could do to show my love.”
Nana pulls me into her chest and says, “Real love isn’t about sex. Real love isn’t about becoming famous. But it isn’t about shying away from those things, either. Jeanne d’Arc knew she was going to die, and she could still love her god and all those angels because she’d felt the gift of real love and it was like nothing she’d ever experienced before.”
I feel the screw come loose on the bolt of grief.
“Yes. That’s a good speech, Nana. But how the hell am I going to play that—”
“What did you wear?” Nana asks mischievously, before I can finish. She knows we need a break…
“What did you wear to the Met that night you pranked the Van der Ebbs?”
“That little black dress you got me for the opening of Vampire Grrls.”
“What about the purse?”
“It was the Coach bag James got me after my rave in Juliet,” I say in my best Upper East Side la-di-da voice. “I’d be naked without it. Nana, you should have seen the way he played Phil that night. And you would’ve sworn I was a rich princess.”
She looks back to her book on Saint Paul and says, “We’re a noble, theatrical family.”
I will win tomorrow because of my flaws…when I first think this thought I wonder if it could be a Big Adult Thought—it’s crazy, but it comes to me as a simple proof that makes perfect sense.
I see that flash of anger that flitted across Stephanie’s face when she missed her mark. It was deeper than anger. I’d seen it on another face, my mother’s, as she turned the wheel of the car into oncoming traffic. It’s called scorn, and thinking about it makes me realize I know something Stephanie doesn’t.
All that rage, she’s able to compress into a hard, gemlike flame. But she won’t be able to hold it much longer. I know that from personal experience.
“Nana. I think I know Stephanie’s flaw—her problem is that she doesn’t have any flaws, or she’s never had anything really bad happen to her—she doesn’t see how dangerous the game can become.” I pull the covers back.
“I know something she doesn’t know,” I exclaim. But then I remember the speech sitting in my in-box. “Nana. I got one of the speeches Stephanie might get tomorrow. I know it wasn’t by accident. It’s about what I did to James. Francis isn’t even trying to hide it in the storyline.” Nana scoffs, shakes her head. “And the social worker got hold of the coroner’s shots of James,” I add, and watch Nana’s face sink.
“It doesn’t matter,” she shrugs. “The case was closed months ago. I said you had nothing to do with it.” She folds her arms across her chest.
I close my eyes but can’t shake that look on Stephanie’s face. It went deeper than rage. It was scorn.
My tablet rings. An entourage will soon be at my door. I get out of Nana’s bed and walk to my room. I collect the items I’m allowed to take onto the set for the final round. Nana gets up, puts on her bathrobe, heads down to the kitchen, fishes for the Le Cruset egg poacher in the drawers beneath the sink, and then takes a seat on her couch. Her eyes have a vacant, mirthless stare as I turn from my duffel bag and face her. We still have unfinished business. I pick up the genealogy I kept under my pillow last night—throw it down at the glass coffee table and hear the crack. Nana gasps at the splinter I’ve made. I push her hand away as she tries to pick it up.
“We’re real people, Nana. Not some fucked-up characters in a play. We aren’t the only fame-hungry wannabes to stumble upon the secret of getting noticed. I remember the look on my mother’s face as she turned the wheel and tried to kill us both. And I remember the name she called my brother. She called him her little man. That’s what she used to say when I peeked through the keyhole and saw her massage that wound in his thigh. Her little man, as she grabbed for his…”
I snarl, “Your sister would whisper in my brother’s ear. And then she’d caress that wound in his thigh she’d made and call him her little man.”
“Enough,” Nana shouts.
What just happened? It felt so real. Not some speech, but words that didn’t come from any place other than my heart. Nana looks to the cloister windows. I look to the silver monolith. It feels like we’ve just watched a horrible storm destroy a placid spring morning. But as quickly as it erupted, it disappears.
Nana rubs her eyes. “Your brother was trying to warn you about something on the last night of his life.” She speaks calmly as if she expects me to speak about her sister, as if she’s Esme but with a helluva lot more love. “James was trying to tell you that if you didn’t find the kind of love the strong girls in your bloodline all shared, that you’d become just like your mother.”
My throat tightens, as if I’m trying to choke on what I know is true. Nana looks at her feet, her hands. I feel my ribs expand.
“Did James find that in here?” I hold up the genealogy.
“No, child. That’s common knowledge that any psychologist would tell you. Children who are abused often become abusers.”
“But I wasn’t abused,” I say stoically.
“Yes, you were,” she insists. “You lost your best friend in the world, the boy who’d saved your life and taught you the secrets to playing a real superhero. That’s abuse.”
I can’t shake off the angry speech I just gave. Is this what it feels like to be real and normal—at least, as normal as a family who finally lets go of all the make-believe can feel?
“Don’t,” she says, and I expect a mean face, a guilt-filled lecture. But I can tell from that smile that emerges, like the sun after a terrible storm, that she feels it too. We both search the coffee table for a script and take a deeper breath when we see there is no script. After a pause that feels like an eternity, she raises her hand.
“Now you’re ready. It’s time to become Jeanne.”
I pack the last of my things.
The doorbell rings. A tall man with a clipboard tells me he has to search the suitcase for electronic devices. Beside him is a young production assistant with a hand-held camera. Francis probably isn’t the genius everyone took him for after his last film, but he’s a mastermind at generating publicity.
“What are the numbers?” I ask and think I’m still looking over Nana’s shoulder at the Fanscan website. I turn and see her waiting helpless beside the prie-dieu.
“Wait,” I tell the men. “I have to say goodbye to my Nana.” I close the door. I feel eggshells beneath my Uggs as her bittersweet smile rises victorious through a world of hurt on her face. The bolt of grief tightens. A big cry would help, but I’ve got to save those tears for my climax, my auto-da-fe.
“Je vous aime,” my Nana says. She cocks her head. “Break a leg.” No matter what secret location I’m heading to, Nana will be there, peering out from behind the rearranged furniture of the pantry—that summer cottage where I discovered my gift—shouting the lines I’d missed—all those hugs and the real tears she wiped away so I could get a shot at being a girl who needs to share her gift with the world. That summer cottage where my brother and I played like two glorious nymphs just waiting to be discovered. I wish we’d never left that place, but as I hug my Nana I know this is what my brother James and my character Jeanne have prepared me for.
“I can’t afford to lose you, my princess.”
“You won’t. By this time tomorrow we’ll be plotting our vacation to the Cort de Sur—or at least pigging out in that new French bistro in Chelsea.” She holds me tightly against her spongy breasts and I remember how Craig held me during our improvisation—desperately, as if he, too, had a lot to hide. Maybe our imperfect histories will make us the perfect match.
“Remember, whatever Francis has in store for you, Jeanne will be there to protect you.” She goes to her desk, picks up the mahogany jewelry box that she usually keeps beside her bed. She takes out a small brass ring. We both hold our breath as she places it on my left index finger. It fits.
“This will keep you safe. I’ll tell you its provenance when you return.”
As I close the apartment door behind me and walk down the hall, the man with the clipboard says, “Eleven million.”
“You wanted to know the numbers on who’ll be watching tonight,” he says, trying to scare me.
But I stare him down and say, “That’s good. Can’t wait to share the fireworks. After all, I’ll be riding with a saint.”
Sky-lights crisscross the heavens over the Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens. Yousef pulls up beside a TV van with a pole sticking up from its roof wrapped with a cable that looks like a yellow eel. The man who searched my bag escorts me to a trailer where Eve and Stephanie are already putting on their uniforms; white tunics with gold buttons and epaulets, black pants, and hiking boots with metal cleats that will help us maneuver on the ice. My fingers desperately search the pockets of my tunic, hoping Claude might have left me another clue on how to survive. But they’re empty.
“Francis chose white so the whole world will see how real all the blood looks,” Eve says, and flashes a wild look at me. She arches her back. Her eyes have a maniacal glare.
Welcome to live theater, Eve. Hope you don’t miss any cues.
“Bradley was a real mouthful last night,” she says, and puckers her lips in such a way that even Petit Fleur would understand what a real mouthful means.
“What? You couldn’t settle for a hand job?” I reply.
“Why waste such a nice package?” She thrusts her cannonballs through the Mylar suit. “I’m gonna really enjoy fucking Craig after I finish you off, little miss virgin.”
“Why don’t you just shut your slut mouth, Eve,” I say, surprised I’ve already let her get under my skin.
“Why don’t you make me—you ugly, little tramp.”
“That’s enough,” Stephanie says. “We’re supposed to be professionals.”
Sure, we’re professionals. Professionals who are going to try to kill each other when the lights go green…
A dresser I’ve never seen before inspects each of our outfits. We’re allowed five minutes for makeup, a tall girl who has replaced Mollie informs us. Eve had her makeup done at home. Stephanie asks for a little base. I do the same. I carefully tuck my scapular into the folds of my suit. Stephanie stands behind me in the mirror looking like she wants to talk. Or maybe she wants me to watch her transform. A tingling travels up my arm as I gently twirl the ring Nana gave me this morning.
You can beat her, Cease. You don’t have to become her to do it.
The girl who replaced Mollie announces the time for makeup and costume has ended. We’re escorted from the trailer through a dark tunnel made of plywood into a great hangar of a soundstage that’s been converted into a giant igloo. Curved ice walls rise fifty feet. Giant fans spew flurries beside the locked and bolted studio doors. Men in grey jumpsuits carefully sweep down the ice on each of the ovals we’ll be competing on. What has Francis promised the world about the fate of the last girls standing? The electronic scoreboard sits beneath a glass office that hovers on a hydraulic lift about thirty feet above the set. The numbers flashing look like some unreal equation—one of those sequences that starts out simple and then gets exponential and grows into a figure that can’t possibly be correct.
Only viruses can spread that fast. Viruses and the quest for fame…
Francis stands between two men dressed in security-guard uniforms. He looks exhausted, but with a smile of sick satisfaction pasted on his face like the lips of a joker. It tells me those numbers are real and he’s about to make history. Behind him is a giant plastic picnic table filled with medieval weapons we’ve used whenever we jump back in time to the 15th century.
Francis holds up three keys in one hand and reads from a tablet. “Welcome, finalists,” he says in a dull monotone and points to the assortment of daggers, swords, crossbows, and spears set out on the table. “Each of you will be allowed two weapons to take into battle.” He holds out strips of yellow, lined paper. Eve rushes up to take hers. Stephanie and I hold back, carefully scan the weapons on the table.
“So—we gotta kill our opponents to get the key, right?” Eve asks. She slurs her words, then jerks her head from Francis to me with that sick smile. She’s not just on drugs—she’s drunk, too.
“No one said anything about killing,” Francis replies as he turns his head skyward. It’s as if he’s replying to a question from some lawyer or a viewer at home. “But please understand, these weapons are real. What you do with them is your business.” We each write our names on a slip of yellow, lined paper. He puts them in a hat one of the guards holds out.
“Susan B. Anthony,” Francis calls. Eve steps up and reaches for the sword and a dagger.
“Catherine the Great,” Francis calls. Stephanie steps up and chooses a battle-axe and a dagger.
“Where are the men?” I ask.
“The men are waiting for you in the inner sanctum and are unarmed.”
Francis turns to me. I forego the sword and spears—too cumbersome. I take the dagger, consider the crossbow. Since we’ll be chasing each other in circles, I leave the crossbow behind.
Francis points to the door. “Once inside that door, you’ll enter the first circle.” He holds up three skeleton keys. “Inside the ice circles are obstacles. All three keys are needed to open the first door, and any two keys must be used on the second door and the third. Once a door is unlocked, it must remain unlocked.”
Francis continues as I strategize. “Each of you must wear the key on your left lapel.” He points to the scoreboard beneath the makeshift office overhead. Men with tablets and headphones move about behind the glass.
“These are the numbers of viewers showing in real time,” Francis exclaims like some ecstatic father looking down at his firstborn. “Not bad, considering when we started this crazy mess of reality-drama only four-and-a-half months ago, fewer than five thousand tuned in for the WebTV trailers.”
23,537,464. The numbers blink, and I try not to blink staring them down. Francis presses a button on a remote he holds up to the scoreboard, and our characters’ names flash across the screen in a column. “This is where each of you stand, based on the following question I gave to the viewers: If you could vote for the last girl standing right now, who would you choose?”
Catherine has resumed first place. I’m in second, but my number is so close to Susan’s that it’s probably a statistical tie. When I look from the electronic board down to Catherine’s face I can tell she’s been waiting for me to see her—she wants me to watch her transform, to be entranced by the magic, like a fly caught in her web. Over the whispered hum of conversations and the drone of those giant fans, I hear the gentle click of her heels and it’s like a wand has passed overhead; the flash and sparkle of her gorgeous eyes pull me in. I shift my gaze; remember Nana’s careful instructions…and in a fraction-of-a-fraction of a second, I see her weakness.
I can beat the ice princess.
There’s nothing like playing the underdog, Cease. Stay cool. Listen to your character.
One of the guards positions us before the first door in the same order we’d drawn from the hat. Lights begin to flash overhead as we insert our keys into the three slots. We turn our keys simultaneously. After a series of clicks, the door opens. Francis steps up onto his crane and lifts silently like some genie stepping onto a magic carpet. But then it stops, and he looks down to give us a final speech.
“What happens in the next hour will determine your fate.” Cameras on overhead wires spin and hover into place and all point directly at Francis as he solemnly raises his hand like some bloodthirsty emperor in a coliseum. “May the odds be ever in your…” He has drawn out each word slowly, but now he stops, gives a huge grin to the cameras. “Wait. That’s just some silly movie. But this is a reality-drama.” I feel my heart skip a beat.
“Action,” Francis shouts.
Susan takes off, running counterclockwise. Her cleats make long strides on the ice. I wait for Catherine to make her choice. She heads in the opposite direction. I head toward Susan, run a few yards, stop—glance back, catch sight of Cate’s shoulder hunched low as she disappears around the bend.
I hear a scream that sounds like Susan. When I round the bend I see a large hole in the ice—what must have been a trapdoor. A hole in the ice has swallowed Susan? I inch to the edge of the hole. I see shadows through the darkness, but as I squint I see metal rods sticking up from snow-dusted plywood boards. The chasm is about nine feet wide—if I can get enough speed and these cleats stick…I take a few steps back and make a running leap. My right boot lands on the edge of the hole, but my left slips. I pull myself up and try to nurse my injured ankle. There are boot prints on the ice ahead of me. How?
It must be from the workers who set up the stage…only I thought I’d seen them carefully sweep down all the ice as we were waiting for Francis.
I look down the pit. I can lower myself down and find her—but it’s so dark…slowly, as if on cue, a light at the bottom of the hole comes on…I feel a sharp pain from behind and let out a yell. Susan lets out a maniacal laugh as she drives her dagger into the back of my ribs. I scream. She pushes me to the edge…
“All’s fair in love and—”she says.
I spin against the knife and she drives it deeper into my back, and then I’m falling, feeling the blood soak against my skin. A jolt. Have I hit the first of the spikes down below?
Or should be—only the jolt that traveled up from me feet through my chest has turned me around so I face Susan, who looks surprised, WTF surprised—as in, Why aren’t you falling down into the pit where I pushed you?
The jolt saved me, and is followed by an even stranger feeling—as if my body’s on autopilot and whoever’s taken over knows my weaknesses, my wounds. I spin; my right foot comes up, kicks Susan in the back of her knee. She buckles, rises to grab hold of my wounded left ankle. I shake her off. I pull Susan’s knife out of my back and it slips from my hand, falls into the pit. I punch Susan in the face. Her head goes down to the ice. I fall on top of her, place my cleats against her outstretched hand, reach for my own dagger, hold it to her throat. I take her key.
There’s flashing above as digits on the electronic clock spin wildly, but I can’t see the names beside them. Susan’s unconscious. I stagger up, and slowly make my way around the final portion of the ice circle.
Framed between two snow-dusted hedges is a door. I’m dizzy. I pull myself up, fit the first key into the lock. The second. Blood’s coming from my mouth, dripping down my pants from my back, and filling my right boot. I turn the second key, slowly. I hear an electronic click…the door opens. I secure the keys, and just as I take my first step into the next circle, there’s a hand on my shoulder.
“No,” I cry as the hand pushes me forward and I go face first against the ice wall. Cate shuts the door behind me. Her hand grips the base of my skull, slams my face against the ice wall. I slump down—do a face-plant on the ice floor. I feel her warm breath as she pushes her mouth against my ear.
“Remember my offer, Cease.” Her voice is ethereal but her “offer” is as blunt as a Mafioso telling a fighter she has to go down in the third round. “I don’t want to kill you. We share the same blood…the same gift…there’s just no need to expose someone’s unfortunate past to twenty million people.”
I feel her cleats on the small of my back.
It’s a lie…you’ll kill me…you just want to do it slowly.
“My speech…it’s all right there…twenty million people will know how you killed your brother,” she says, sotto voce—her words feel like a giant needle she’s slowly drawing from my chest.
“I’ve got a real speech, too, Catherine, and it’s about what real love feels like.”
“So be it,” she pronounces with dental precision. “I’ll be sending you back where you belong. You’re white trash from a trailer—”
“I’m not trash. I come from a long line of strong girls. I’m just as good as you—”
“Sure you are, honey. And I’m a genie in a bottle.” She turns her face up to the pool of light like an animal basking in a kill. Catherine preens as the cameras close in…I see my chance. I grab the collar of her tunic. She tries to shrug me off. She rises but I’m still attached. Her left foot slips on the ice, and when she goes down to her knee, I head-butt her and she falls backward. I grab her key before she can rise and throw it to the bend in the circle. I jab my dagger into the ice wall and slowly pull myself up. Cate crawls toward her key as I limp ahead in the other direction.
I round the bend, careful to search for another trapdoor, but as I look up I see a gigantic figure lumber toward me. It’s the giant that nearly took me out in the forest. He looks even taller than he did then, over seven feet. He’s in a white jumpsuit that makes it hard for me to see his arms and legs on the ice. His motorcycle boots are thigh-high.
He looks taller, Cease, because you’re barely standing up…and you’re bleeding, too…so much blood it’s filling your boot…
I wish I’d taken the crossbow. I could fire from here. He’s closing, making those lopes with his arms swinging, his knuckles scraping against the ice as he bares down. I go for my dagger. He’ll make the same lunge he did on the dry creek-bed and when he does, I’ll slice his neck—another step…he’s within arm’s reach. I lift the dagger. I stare helpless at my frozen fingers…I can’t feel the blade. My fingers are numb. The knife slides from my hand and lands at his gargantuan feet. He takes hold of my face, pushes me backward, and I do a complete somersault. My neck makes a muffled thud on the ice. I let out a cry and lie helpless. He takes slow, menacing steps as the cameras hover overhead. He’ll pick me up and drop me…he’ll throw me against the ice wall as the viewers scream for more. He reaches. I have one last chance. I grab my key from my tunic, hold the butt against my palm and the shaft tightly between my two middle fingers. I play dead. He picks me up by the shoulders, lifts me a few feet off the ice, drops me. My head hits the ice with a crunch. I still play possum, and when he draws his face near mine I can feel his foul breath. I jab the key into his left eye. The giant staggers backward.
I’m not done. I’ll never make it through the final door with him behind me.
I leap up as he contorts his face and goes down on one knee. I jump onto his back. He slams himself up against the wall and I feel my whole body crunch.
OK, now what? As soon as he stands up, I’m dead.
I take a few steps back and race toward him. I jab the key in the back of his knee. When he goes down on one leg, I kick him in the head. The sound of the giant’s head hitting the ice shakes the ice walls. I kick him again with the toe of my boot. He lies motionless as I back away.
I can hear steps behind me as I open the third and final door, and close it as hard as I can. It could be Susan. It’s probably Cate. I turn and see an orchard of cherry trees, lightly dusted with snow. In the center of the final circle sits the stump of a tree—an axe is embedded in its innermost rings. I’m the first girl into the circle, and according to the rules I can improv until I get the signal for my speech. I know what I have to say to Brad. I know what I want everyone to hear.
Brad approaches from the shadows. I can’t find Craig as I shake my right boot and feel my foot sloshing in a pool of blood. It looks like Eve’s plastered her malicious glint on Brad’s face.
“Did Susan make you a man last night, Bradley?” He advances to the stump, eyes the axe. He’s got bruises on his face and looks like he’s been crying. “Doesn’t look like she did a much of a job.” Whatever mercy I felt for boys like Brad has left the building. The crane carrying Francis silently lowers itself behind me.
I raise my dagger; stick it in the tree trunk.
“You want to pick up that axe, don’t you, Bradley?” My chest feels heavy. My lungs are clogged. “She must’ve put on quite a show for you. But you don’t look like a man now. You look like a scared little boy.” He puts a hand on the handle of the axe.
“Was that the deal you made with her? That you’ll be on the podium if only you could eliminate me?” His eye’s swollen; his nose is bleeding onto the soft, real snow.
“There’s no turning back after you pick that up, Bradley.” I see a figure in the shadows of the trees on the perimeter of the circle. “No turning back on your manhood now,” I shout, but it comes out hoarse. I can taste and feel the blood dripping down my throat.
“You’re no good,” Brad shouts. “You killed your own flesh and blood.” He grabs the handle of the axe and works it out of the stump.
“You’re angry, Brad. You’re lost, too.” I take another step. Brad’s face is contorted, but not from the physical wounds. His hapless, innocent grin that nearly seduced me has morphed into a crude Joker’s leer…
“It’s not your fault,” I say. “I guess the journey into manhood is a lot tougher than just going all the way.” I don’t know where these lines are coming from, I just can’t think straight anymore. “Boys are taught to conquer girls like peaks, make them trophies; but I’ve found another kind of love, a love that can save you from all this heartache.”
“Susan tricked me,” he cries. “She told me we’d be together and all I’d have to do is eliminate you.”
“You mean kill me, don’t you, Bradley? Because make-believe’s over. We’re not just actors on a stage, Brad. We’re real people and this is what we face every day, not on a set but on the real battlegrounds at school and in the real world.” My head spins. My lungs feel as if they are slowly constricting.
Please, Jeanne. If you’re really out there. I don’t want to go down until I give my speech.
The digits spin overhead. I take a step toward him. Brad’s face softens. I rise up to hug him—but as I reach his lips, he steps back.
“Jeanne, watch out,” Brad shouts.
I turn and see Susan, a dagger in her bloody hand. She takes a sideswipe at my throat. I block her with my wounded forearm. I wind up and punch her in the nose. I hear the same crack I heard when I punched Rex. As she goes down her shoulder catches a tree limb, twists her around, and she does a face-plant in the snow. Two grips shuffle their way onto the set and drag Susan off by her feet. I’m trying to recall who gets to speak next. I turn back to Brad.
“I did you a favor, Brad. She’s just not the kind of lover you need.”
Francis touches down from the crane as his assistants hold up two whiteboards, one to Brad, one to me. Mine reads: You wanted a final scene with Cate. You got it. Francis hugs the camera console as the crane rises. He shouts, “Action.”
My eyes are swollen slits, but I can just make out a figure in the open door. It’s Cate. Craig appears from the shadows and makes his way to the stump of the cherry tree. What are the boys and girls back home thinking now? What do all the grown-ups really want to see?
Why didn’t I kill Susan?
Because that’s what Cate would’ve done. It’s her flaw —the blind ambition that I, too, have tasted. She may walk away with Craig. She may stand on the podium. But I want the whole world to see what real love looks like.
Cate and I square off. Or, Cate squares off and I drag my wounded legs and body to face her. Craig emerges from the shadows of the cherry tree in his full, dress uniform. He steps up onto the stump as if it’s the podium. Golden medals adorning his tunic glitter beneath the lights like a thousand suns.
I’m listing, as if Francis has shifted the entire set to a cockeyed angle. I’m bleeding. I’m dizzy. I will get only one shot at my speech. I see the signal come from the production assistant standing behind Francis on the crane.
I’m not Juliet. I’m not a frightened ingénue begging to be kissed by a handsome young man. I’m tough. I’m smart. But I’m something else, too. I’m a girl who can see she’ll never cross over until she stands her ground and confesses…tells the world the difference between love and hunger.
“Captain,” I emote, but my voice sounds like a chicken underwater. “You’ll choose me if you want to bring peace to the universe.”
Cate steps between us.
“There’s been enough bloodshed, Cate. I’m not here to fight you.” I step toward her and then I feel it—as if Jeanne’s armor has dropped from the sky and landed squarely on my shoulders.
“Jeanne d’Arc,” she says. “The gods have chosen Craig and me for all eternity. You will bow before us or you will die.”
“Craig doesn’t love you. I cannot bless your union.” My feet desperately grip at my blood-filled boots, like two hands trying to grasp the edge of a cliff.
The voices of clerics, piped in electronically, blare, “You’re a witch and a heretic.”
“Repent,” Cate shouts. She throws a jab at my face. I feel my nose cave in. I fall backward. Francis is hunched behind the main camera overhead like some angry bear. Desperately, I search for the production assistant’s signal.
You promised me a speech. I’ve got to give my…but my head’s spinning, as if Francis has just pushed a button and the entire igloo is making a revolution…picking up speed…Please, Jeanne. I can’t go down yet.
“I didn’t kill my brother-in-arms.” I raise my fist to the gods. “But what happened to him was my fault.” I stagger backward on one leg. I feel a whoosh and see a blur as Cate’s elbow crashes into my temple. I fall back, see my Nana on my way down, slowly shaking her head…alone in that threadbare apartment with all the skeletons of our past.
I’m from a long line of strong girls. I’m a girl and I’m here to protect girls. But you can’t stay a girl any longer…this speech is about what it takes to become a woman…they’re waiting…all those who stand on that threshold back home are waiting…everyone’s got a line to cross…everyone needs a little help to take that first, agonizing step…
Cate pins me to the ground. I look into her eyes and remember my brother’s face in the mirror after he said only one of us could move on. Cate doesn’t know that kind of love. The only love she knows is the kind that places you on a podium, makes you a trophy to all the boys. Those boys are watching, too. They need to know it’s not about finding a new trophy to put on the shelf.
Jeanne? I have a message to share. I wish you could hear me. I know you can’t give me a superpower. I just want to know one thing. Why did you confess? You didn’t do anything wrong.
And then I feel her words well up in my wounded chest.
I wasn’t speaking to the world. I was speaking to God.
Thanks. I understand.
Cate’s got that same glint she had when she took out the three men in the alley. She’s cocked her fist. I can barely stand…I’m going down…
“That’s enough,” Craig shouts.
The glitter of his medals beneath the huge halogens overhead makes me feel that he’s my knight in shining armor. Cate turns to Craig. She raises her hand and gently caresses his face, regally. My chest grows warm. It feels as if my bolt of grief is being held in a fire, like all those wrought-iron instruments are glowing a fiery red…
This is what happened to you, Jeanne? Take away all the stupid dialogue and the phony scenery and this is exactly what they did to you…history is what happens over and over again until you get it right.
This time, I’m going to get it right.
I take a deep breath, raise myself up and kiss Craig. It feels as if only a few moments have passed since that kiss we shared on that makeshift stage in the forest. The vast promise of a morning on the beach stands before me, and I can see him—that boy who’s taken me all this way—waiting for me on the other side. He’s chained to a wall, locked in a tower where he’ll remain until I confess.
I step back. Cate swings a roundhouse. I duck and she nearly hits Craig. I drive my head into her neck. She stumbles back. A few peasants pull a rickety wagon into view. Chains in back will hold the loser. Craig will hold the winner.
I feel the cameras closing in…
Remember who you’re speaking to, and be quick about it. Your death will be real.
The ancient wheels of the wagon stop. I take a deep breath. The soft glow of the stage that I’d seen in my free fall expands slowly. The scent in the air changes; it’s now early spring. The smoke of a fire—a fire built to burn a witch—grows before the ice-encased memory.
I see an audience, but not the angry, torch-lit faces of a mob. Claude and Nana are smiling, gently bathed in the soft light. Beside them, my brother’s beautiful, handsome face beams…those bruises on his face give him the rugged look of a leading man….and behind him rows and rows of girls and boys who wrote me, who need to know what I’ve come to share…
“Boys and girls. I am Jeanne d’Arc, a real girl who led an army and changed the world, not some character in a crazy movie, not some fame-hungry girl who wants you to vote for me…I hold the frequencies only a girl can get between heaven and the heart. No boy can teach you how to fall in love. There’s no one boy in the whole universe you’re meant to fall in love with. That kind of love is only made in the movies.” I turn from Craig to the axe buried in the stump of the tree.
“Girls. Having sex won’t make you a woman. It might make you feel good. It might make you feel like the queen bee of your school—but that’s not what being a woman should be about.” I shift my gaze to Brad. One of my eyes is covered in blood, and it appears there are two Brads looking lost and forlorn beside a tree stump.
“Boys. Hear me now. A girl isn’t something to be conquered, like a peak. I was chosen by God because of my flaws.” Cate’s icy, laser stare bears down on me as I try to take a full breath. It doesn’t scare me anymore. “God gave us flaws for a reason. Perfection is only for saints and angels.”
I feel the bolt of grief loosen. “Catherine. You think love is something that’s handed over, or handed down like a title or the right address.
She takes a quick step, raises her fist. “You have a silver tongue but a devil’s heart,” she emotes. “Did you use those lines on your last victim?” she hisses, and it becomes a long sigh. “I heard he was a beautiful boy. One of the most beautiful boys in the universe…and you killed him.”
“What I did, I did for love. I loved my brother with all my heart. He taught me that I was special. He taught me about a secret to getting noticed. At first I thought this was love. I was wrong. What you feel now, Cate, isn’t love, but hunger.”
I turn to Craig. “And if you really want to save us, you’ll tell the world that real love isn’t about being seen and going all the way…” I feel my eyes slowly roll up into my head…Perhaps death is claiming me; it feels like I’m fighting against the need to sleep…I take another step and can see Craig through only one eye. I blink slowly and focus on Craig’s lips moving gently, those perfectly cut bronze figs slowly pronouncing my verdict.
“You have spoken wisely, Jeanne, but we cannot take you back to our world. You must be returned to your age to face the consequences of your actions.” Craig slowly removes his hand from mine and turns to Cate as the peasants approach. I feel a clattering in my chest as the bolt of grief breaks free, clatters to the frozen earth, and for the first time since my brother’s funeral, I take a deep breath. The peasants bind me in chains and I’m taken away to be burned at the stake. Through the torch-lit faces a single face emerges; toothless, with a crude page-boy haircut, she looks down on me in rags.
J’ai nom La Pucelle.
It’s Jeanne. What can I say to her? I have to ask her the biggest question of all: You knew everything, from the beginning. You gave them all the dialogue, didn’t you?
But why didn’t you do anything to save us, to save my brother?
What kind of life would you have lived then? she replies. She unbinds me, steps back. You’d have become just another hopeful, waiting outside in the cold. Stand up, young lady. You’ve got to finish your speech.”
She points up to the scroreboard and I see my name on top. Eve’s numbers have been removed and I wonder if she’s dead. I stagger toward Craig. I can see the giant clock on the soundstage wall has been reset, but it’s a fuzzy blur. Darkness closes in…
“Captain. I don’t know whether I’ve crossed over to your world, or you’ve crossed over to mine—but neither of us comes from this place. Catherine may offer you a title, but I can offer you the secrets to this real stage called life.” Catherine raises her arm to block Craig as he turns and takes a step toward me, but he pushes her away.
“I’ve been playing a phony character all my life,” he says.
“And so have I.”
“What does real life feel like?” he asks.
“The same way real love feels. It’s scary, but nothing makes you feel so alive.”
Craig’s lips tremble as we kiss. It’s his first time before a live audience and he’s really taken a great star turn. He lifts me up by the armpits and raises me to the heavens. We kiss. I press my lips harder, deeper, in a real grown-up way, and when he lets me down, I collapse onto the bloodstained ice.
Esme closes her metal notebook and looks at Cease as Cease gently twirls a ring on her index finger. Cease still wears a bandage over her broken, bruised nose, but her face beams like a young girl on the rise. HISTORY’S SUPERHEROES: A TEENAGE REALITY-DRAMA has taken the largest share of viewers of any series to debut on WebTV. Esme nods her head, still troubled.
Cease decides she can’t say goodbye without a challenge. “Imagine a boy who saved your life was lying right next to you in pain,” she says. “What would you do to save him? Would you turn away?”
Esme looks uneasy. She fishes through her pockets for her card and slowly pushes it across the table.
“I don’t know what I’d do. But if you ever need to talk about it…”
Cease de Menich is finally ready to tell the world what her character taught her about real love.
I’m glad to finally hear it. It’s hard to get young people to see what real love feels like. Sometimes I wish I could part the clouds and appear, the way the angels appeared to me when I was a girl making garlands on the banks of a river in the Loire Valley. But this just isn’t that kind of story. I’m not that kind of saint, and if you’re expecting a things-were-tougher-in-my-day lecture, you can forget it. I know how hard it is to survive as a young person in the 21st century. Sure, things were tough in my day. Girls got beaten and a cut on your hand could kill you back then. But that’s nothing compared to having your privates broadcast over the internet for the entire world to see, now is it?
The troubles I hear every day…I wish I could get you all to see that the heartache you thought was God’s way of hurting you is there for a reason.
I think I should fill in the gaps in the threadbare de Menich family tree. Or at least the long, strange journey of the ring that Cease now twirls on her finger. My oldest brother, Jacques, gave me the ring when my family was invited to the coronation of King Charles VII after I’d liberated Orleans from the British occupiers. I turned it over to a Benedictine monk who heard my last confession, before I was burned at the stake. He returned it to my mother, Isabella, twenty years later during the trial of my rehabilitation.
I was cleared of all my misdeeds as my young protégée has been cleared of hers. I’m not a witch, a heretic, or any of the other horrible things those 15th century nonbelievers said. I did wear men’s clothes because I was a strong girl. In 1920, I became the patron saint of France. Go figure.
I’m still a strong girl. And I’m here to protect girls.
The ring was passed down, generation to generation, and brought hope and good fortune to many who had the courage to wear it. The three crosses on its band were inscribed by the Bishop Francois Fierbois after I was sanctified by the church.
Nana and Cease finally got a vacation and headed off to Paris. They took a wild theme-park ride entitled Super Heroes. When watching the electronic game The Mysts of Domremy, Cease will laugh when her on-screen avatar locks her ankles around the waist of a handsome young man and offers him a date. Cease doesn’t go to church, but she and her Nana share a ritual that feels pretty holy. They sit on the couch of their living room in Tudor City each evening as the days grow longer and wait for the sun to reflect off the United Nations building and cast a shadow on the living-room wall. They watch the light that forms a palm-sized disk slowly lower to a photograph of a boy and a girl above a sign scrawled in a child’s hand. The boy is dressed in a wizard’s outfit, the girl holds a wand.
The sign reads: Cease & Desist—coming to a theater near you.
I wish it would read: Please call me…I’m not just here for French girls, but anyone who’s lost in a world that keeps insisting it has all the answers.
How do I call? Why don’t you answer? I hear that a lot from people who plead for my help. My answer hasn’t changed in almost six hundred years. All you have to do is remember. All you have to do is find that quiet place in your heart where a single, nearly-forgotten memory resides. All you have to do is remember what it felt like to be forgiven…and that’s where you’ll find me.
Stay in touch.